CHICAGO — With warnings that the recent wave of coronavirus patients is pushing hospitals toward their capacity and leaving health care workers stretched thin, doctors and public health officials say decisions about private holiday gatherings during next week’s Thanksgiving holiday could have a significant impact on how many people die after contracting COVID-19.
Dr. Kamaljit Singh, of NorthShore University HealthSystem, painted a dire picture of a preventable public health catastrophe at Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s daily news conference Thursday.
“Our hospitals and staff, including hospitals across the state and country, are close to a breaking point,” Singh said, a month into the second surge of COVID-19 patients at his suburban hospital group.
“We are filling hospital and ICU beds at NorthShore and around the state at an exponential speed,” he said. “Our staff are already exhausted after nine months of a physical, mental and emotionally exhausting battle.”
As of Wednesday night, more people were in Illinois hospitals with COVID-19 than ever before. Of the more than 6,000 people in hospitals, there are 1,192 in intensive care units and 587 on ventilators in the state.
“I know at times that numbers can just fly over our heads, but to put it in simple terms: one in five hospitalized patients will die of COVID-19 infection, we are accumulating new infections at a rate of more than one per second, and every minute a fellow American dies of the virus,” Singh said.
“It reminds me of growing up during the Vietnam War. I could never wrap my brain around the numbers of soldiers’ lives lost, but the pictures were very compelling. Unfortunately, I can’t show you pictures of the suffering of our patients.”
Singh emphasized that new infections are preventable. But keeping people who suffer serious complications from COVID-19 out of intensive care units is a far less certain proposition. Even with improved treatments and reduced average periods of hospitalization, Singh said there is often very little doctors can do other than to let the disease take its course.
“The majority of these deaths are occurring in elderly patients, and we have to watch them slowly die right in front of our eyes, when acute care hospitals are really designed to make people better and get them home quickly,” he said. “But we know that with this virus, it is going to do what it wants to do.”
Singh, who is director of microbiology and infectious diseases research at NorthShore, said many countries have shown that the coronavirus can be brought under control with public health measures alone.
He said health care workers get frustrated when they learn of infections caused by people attending private gatherings and spreading the virus to family members who end up hospitalized.
“We see it and we say, ‘Oh my God,’ you shouldn’t even have been here. This is a tragedy,” he said. “Now, a lot of those are circumstances beyond their control because the aunt goes to a wedding and comes over to visit you, and you get infected and wind up in the hospital.”
Singh spoke a day before new Tier 3 COVID-19 mitigation measures take effect in Illinois. The capacity and gathering limits stop short of a mandatory stay-at-home order, although the Illinois Department of Public Health has advised all residents to avoid any non-essential activities. The infectious disease expert described the new measures as commonsense and effective when it comes to regulating businesses and public spaces.
“But we will also need to change our private behavior because a lot of transmissions are occurring at birthday parties, weddings and family gatherings,” Singh said. “This is especially important as we approach Thanksgiving, and it’s critical that we make our bubble smaller and only celebrate with our immediate household members. Instead of focusing on inconveniences, let’s focus on bringing down our case positivity to very low, single digits. Because once we get to that goal we can again open up businesses and return to a more normal life. ”
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Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said she has heard talk of people thinking that receiving a pre-Thanksgiving negative coronavirus test result would clear them to meet up with loved ones.
“That only works if you haven’t exposed yourself to anyone in the 14 days from when you got tested to when you meet up with your friend and family. But when you are around other people you can be exposed to the virus at any time.
“So while I do want to encourage people to get tested, just remember a negative test does not get you a free pass to celebrate Thanksgiving in person. The safest way to celebrate with your loved ones, and your cherished elderly relatives is to do it virtually,” Ezike said.
The more public health measures to reduce the spread of the virus and the rate of new infections are effective in the coming weeks, Ezike said, the quicker the state will be able to return to normality.
“My fear is the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths will spike even further in the weeks after Thanksgiving because people spent the holiday together mixing households,” she added. “I don’t want anyone to have to look back and say, if only we didn’t have people over for Thanksgiving, such-and-such, so-and-so might still be here for Christmas, or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.”
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Pritzker also announced $60 million in new grant funding to be distributed to grassroots organizations outside of Cook County, some of which will support a new jobs for “pandemic health navigators” to help connect people exposed or infected to the coronavirus with available resources and services.
“These organizations will do everything from assisting with public benefits applications to supporting health literacy — from combating COVID rumors and myths to promoting everyday preventive actions, whatever it takes to reduce the disparities in outcomes shouldered by marginalized communities in this pandemic,” Pritzker said, inviting all deeply rooted grassroots organizations outside of Cook County to apply.
“They will also help us reach some of our most at-risk groups in this pandemic,” the governor said. “That includes rural communities, Black and Brown communities, elderly residents, people at or near the poverty line, undocumented immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, disconnected youth, people with limited English proficiently — really anyone who has few existing support mechanisms that could benefit from a little help navigating this pandemic.”
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Pritzker said the impact of the statewide Tier 3 restrictions on easing the state’s surge in new cases and hospitalizations will be evaluated after at least one — and likely two — 14-day incubation periods, which comes out to Dec. 18.
“I listen regularly to people who are concerned about the restrictions that they feel have been placed upon them. But I’m not the one, in the end, who is causing these restrictions to be imposed. Truthfully, this virus is taking people’s lives and it’s my job, it’s Dr. Ezike’s job, Dr. Singh’s job actually, though he doesn’t work for the government, it is our job to keep people alive so that we can get to the other side of it,” Pritzker said.
“And we are close, folks, we are close. You can see the vaccines are coming and if you can just hang on — just wear your mask, keep your distance, get a flu shot — we can get there.”