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Central Illinois Hospitals ‘Genuinely Concerned’ About Increase In COVID-19 Cases

Jim Timpe, CEO of HSHS St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield, says hospital leaders are worried ICUs could be overwhelmed with COVID-19 and flu patients this fall.
Jim Timpe, CEO of HSHS St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield, says hospital leaders are worried ICUs could be overwhelmed with COVID-19 and flu patients this fall.

A surge in COVID-19 cases in central Illinois is causing concern for some local hospital leaders.

For now, there are enough hospital beds to accommodate those with serious COVID-19 infections. But as the number of confirmed cases and local test positivity rate rises, hospital leaders worry their emergency rooms and intensive care units could become overwhelmed – a threat that led to the statewide stay-at-home order in the spring.

“It was avoided then, but now we are seeing that very concern become a reality. All of our local and regional hospitals are feeling the strain on staffing and resources,” said Jim Timpe, president and CEO of HSHS St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield.

Speaking on behalf of leaders at St. Francis, Taylorville Memorial Hospital, Pana Community Hospital, and Hillsboro Area Hospital, Timpe said at a news conference Friday that they are “genuinely concerned” about the potential demand this fall for hospital care for both COVID-19 and flu patients.

“There are plenty of beds available. But we can see that changing quickly,” Timpe said. “What we want to avoid is having a heavy flu season that fills up all those ICU beds, and doesn't allow that room for the COVID patients. That's why we're encouraging the flu shots.”

Sangamon County Department of Public Health director Gail O’Neill said healthcare leaders in Springfield have shared similar concerns.

“We need to kind of work to flatten the curve again,” O’Neill said. “From talking to the doctors on our morning calls, they're starting to seriously feel the stretch and the stress of their medical systems with having very full ICUs, a lot of people very, very sick.”

Illinois Department of Public Health metrics show 35% of ICU beds and 34% of hospital beds are currently available in Region 3 – the 19-county region that includes Christian, Montgomery and Sangamon counties. The goal is for availability of both to stay above 20%.

Statewide, hospitalizations hit their highest level since June at more than 2,000 on Thursday.

A spokesperson for Memorial Medical Center in Springfield said the hospital’s availability “mirrors” the region’s, but it can “rapidly convert other care areas into ICU beds for COVID-19 patients if necessary.”

“Recent trends in the number of COVID-19 cases are concerning, in terms of the potential stress on hospitals,” Michael Leathers said in a written statement. “While Memorial Health System hospitals have capacity, we need the public’s help in reducing the spread of COVID-19, especially with influenza season approaching.”

HSHS St. John’s Hospital in Springfield doesn’t release the specific number of patients sick with COVID-19 in the ICU because it fluctuates, said spokesperson Erica Johnson. But she said they take up a “small percentage” of ICU and emergency capacity, and the hospital is ready to provide medical care to everyone. She said at this point, they are not concerned about capacity.

“We encourage the community to not delay medical care if they need it,” Johnson said.

Surge In Cases

Meanwhile, local public health officials are warning that without a change in trends, the region could have additional restrictions put in place by the state, as has happened in the Metro East region of the state near St. Louis, and two regions in northern Illinois.

The positivity rate for Region 3, which includes Springfield and surrounding counties, currently sits at 6.7%, up from 4.6% a month ago. If a region’s positivity rate surpasses an 8% average in a seven-day period, IDPH can impose new rules.

Christian County is among more than 30 counties on IDPH’s warning list.

“This is not a pattern we want to maintain,” said Hugh Sartlee, director of the Montgomery County Health Department, at the Friday news conference. “We all have to work together to slow the spread of COVID and prevent having a negative effect on our county's health, economy and schools.”

One challenge in addressing the resurgence of COVID-19 cases is that public health officials say there isn’t a single cause for it.

“No particular place is kind of taking the lead on where the positivity is coming from,” O’Neill said.

She said recent cases in Sangamon County have come from outbreaks at three long-term care facilities and at the county jail. However, new cases reported lately have also resulted from social gatherings – including weddings and funerals, spread within families or households, and bars and restaurants.

The county reached a daily peak of 94 new cases Thursday, topping the peak from last Saturday of 89 new cases. That brings the total number of reported cases in Sangamon County since March to 3,238. Fourteen residents are hospitalized and more than 1,000 are isolating. Sangamon County also reported seven deaths this week, bringing the total number of local fatalities to 57 since COVID-19 hit Illinois.

Sartlee pointed out that 40% of the 481 confirmed cases in Montgomery County and 56% of the 937 cases in Christian County were reported in the last 30 days.

Christian-Montgomery Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Kevin Schott also stressed that there isn’t just one single cause for the increase in cases.

“We cannot pinpoint any one event, any one place for the outbreaks. It's a combination and the culmination of all of them,” he said. “We do want to stress that large gatherings certainly contribute to the spread of this virus.”

Recent local surges mirror statewide trends; Illinois hit two new peaks this week in the number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in a day. On Friday, the state health department reported 4,554 new cases, topping the previous day’s peak of 4,015. The state last week also surpassed 9,000 confirmed deaths from the disease.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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