For much of the past month, hospitals in southern Illinois have faced a critical shortage of available beds in their intensive care units.
The highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, combined with disinformation and low vaccination rates, has created an overwhelming situation for hospitals and staff. On top of that, demoralized and burned out staff are leaving the profession, adding to shortages.
Statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health show that in Region 5, made up of 23 counties in the southernmost portion of the state, there were no ICU beds available for at least four days last week.
As of Tuesday, there are just two. But the situation is changing hour by hour.
According to Rosslind Rice, communications coordinator for Southern Illinois Healthcare, which operates four hospitals in the region, the situation is so dire that some patients are being sent to neighboring states.
Rice said that IDPH is in the process of sending additional health care workers to the region. So far, that help has boosted the number of available ICU beds across the region from 88 to 94. But more help is needed.
“We got six more beds in this whole region that we would be able to staff with ICU-level care. They were swallowed up immediately. The demand is so extreme that even with the new resources coming in they are filling up right away,” said Rice.
She added the surge of COVID-19 cases was also forcing hospitals to postpone other procedures, including heart surgery and cancer treatments.
“I’ve worked here for 14 years. I didn’t realize that a scheduled open heart surgery is an elective procedure,” said Rice.
According to Arien Herrmann, who manages the Regional Hospital Coordinating Center for IDPH Region 5, the combination of the highly contagious delta variant and the region’s relatively low vaccination rate is driving the current surge. He says new cases are overwhelmingly among people who are not vaccinated.
“The delta variant — some people are estimating that it’s twice as contagious as some of the earlier strains,” said Herrmann. “And then obviously, southern Illinois currently has a very low rate of vaccination compared to the rest of the state.”
Statewide, over 63% of adults are fully vaccinated and over 80% have received at least one vaccine shot, but across Region 5 the vaccination rate is under 40%. Alexander County, the most southern county in the state, currently has a vaccination rate of just under 17%.
“It’s just a general lack of trust in the system,” said Herrmann. “And that probably stems all the way back to when we passed the Affordable Care Act. And some people would argue even further back than that, that there’s just a general sense of distrust with the federal government. There’s certainly, within the state of Illinois, a lot of distrust of the state government.”
Herrmann added that social media works to reinforce “natural biases and preconceptions.”
“If people have these natural biases and preconceptions and then do a Google search they’re going to find an answer that supports their bias,” said Herrmann.
Dr. Vineet Arora is one of the founders of Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, or IMPACT, which works to promote science-based facts and education related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arora, dean of medical education at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, says that hospital staff across the country are experiencing burnout as the pandemic continues to rage despite the availability of highly effective vaccines.
“I think the morale in most hospitals in America is pretty low because of the surge,” said Arora. “And the fact that we’re in this mess because of misinformation and disinformation and people that aren’t willing to get the vaccine has left most health care workers in America pretty demoralized and, frankly, things are in a pretty sad state.”
Arora said medical professionals are doing their part to try to contain the surge in cases but too many members of the public are not part of the solution.
“While I see my colleagues doing everything they can, I think the challenge here is that the public has to do everything they can, too,” said Arora. “It’s really about a social contract. And when people don’t see the public stepping up to try to help, then it can really, really be demoralizing and that can be a vicious cycle.”
Herrmann says that for some people who continue to refuse to get vaccinated it may take personal experience of loss in order to change behavior.
“I think this needs to directly impact people,” said Herrmann. “One of the side effects of this being a very rural area is that if you live in a little community it is possible that even this late in the game that you don’t directly know anybody that’s actually been hospitalized. And I think in a lot of cases that’s what it’s going to take ... losing somebody you care about from something that could have been prevented.”