New COVID-19 Cases In Sangamon Decreasing, Concerns Over Impact On Black Community and Healthcare

Jun 20, 2020

Sangamon County is seeing fewer new COVID-19 cases than it did a month ago, according to data shared in an online roundtable discussion Friday.

But concerns about the disparate impact the coronavirus has on communities of color in the area, and how the pandemic is changing healthcare persist.

Dr. Vidya Sundareshan - co-chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and advisor to the Sangamon County Department of Public Health - said the 14-day average of newly confirmed cases in the county is coming down.

“This is reassuring of the practices that we have in place,” Sundareshan told participants in the roundtable hosted by the University of Illinois Springfield. “The public health measures we have in place are definitely working. Although our numbers were not very high, the curve is consistently coming down.”

Sundareshan said it’s still important for residents to practice social distancing and frequently wash their hands.

As of Friday, 389 Sangamon County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and most have recovered. Thirty-three people have died.

A graph of the rolling average of new COVID-19 cases in Sangamon County shows a downward curve. Dr. Vidya Sundareshan presented the data in Friday webinar.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois

UIS’ Springfield Innovation Hub and the Community Health Roundtable are planning a series of webinars focused on community health and the new coronavirus in the coming months. 

Sundarehsan stressed that now anyone can get a COVID-19 test regardless of symptoms at the drive-through facility outside the Sangamon County Health Department on South Grand Avenue. It’s open Monday through Friday, 9 am to 3:30 pm.

Beyond Statistics

Nationwide, COVID-19 has hit Black and Latino communities hardest. In Sangamon County, 127 Black residents have been diagnosed with the disease, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. They account for 34% of the cases, while they make up just 13% of the population.

Dr. Wendi El-Amin, associate dean of equity and inclusion at SIU School of Medicine, urged people to think about this problem beyond statistics.

She said often the explanation for the disparate impact the coronavirus has on communities of color is that they experience higher rates of chronic disease. But she wants the discussion to go further.

“Because when you lift up the surface and see what's happening, you realize that it is about what zip code you were born in, where you received your education, who educated you, where you were working,” she said.

El-Amin added that systemic racism and the trauma of seeing publicized police brutality recently are also reasons for the health disparities.

El-Amin said physicians and healthcare workers need to understand a person’s housing situation, employment status and other social determinants of health when treating patients.

She is part of the COVID Equity Response Team, which is collecting data and ensuring public health information reaches people who are disproportionately at risk of getting sick. The group is partnering with the Ministerial Alliance of Springfield and the local chapter of the NAACP.

Disruption To Healthcare Services

Since IDPH eased restrictions on what medical procedures could be done in early May, Memorial Medical System is seeing more patients in its emergency departments and operating rooms than it did during the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic. Memorial runs hospitals in Springfield, Decatur, Jacksonville, Taylorville and Lincoln.

But the number of emergency room visits, hospital admissions and surgical cases are still lower than they were before COVID-19. For example, the hospital system saw its emergency room visits drop to 63% of pre-pandemic volume between March 11 and May 10. That number has since risen to 73%.

Memorial Health System is seeing fewer patients in its emergency departments and operating rooms even after the Illinois Department of Public Health eased restrictions on the type of procedures allowed.
Credit Memorial Health System

Fewer visits and admissions have led to financial challenges.

Memorial expects a $200 million gap between revenue and expenses, according to CEO and President Ed Curtis.

“Memorial is no different than HSHS or Chicago or St. Louis or anywhere in the country we’re all facing the same level things,” Curtis said.

The system recently announced it would furlough 460 employees, according to the State Journal-Register. Curtis said the furloughs and “benefit adjustments” for employees would reduce costs by $55 million.

“We have a program here to either grow revenue, reduce expenses or improve design,” Curtis said.

Curtis said he doesn’t want the system to go back to normal, but improve and transform during this time.

“We can be a stronger organization and adapt strategies as we go forward,” Curtis said. “We're seeing a lot more telehealth, that's a good thing.”