We’ve been living with COVID-19 for seven months now. And while it seems the pandemic has taken a backseat to the election — and to life in general for some — health care workers in Chicago are screaming: Thursday’s COVID-19 numbers ought to be ringing serious alarm bells.
Officials announced 97 new deaths, meaning more than 10,000 people have died in Illinois due to coronavirus since the pandemic hit. The state also shattered its previous daily record for COVID-19 cases, announcing nearly 10,000 new cases on Thursday alone.
“I hope that the public understands what it means when we see 10,000 new cases a day,” said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a pulmonologist at Saint Anthony Hospital on Chicago’s Southwest Side, who treats patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19.
“That means, unfortunately, some of these patients will be admitted to the hospital — 20% [or] one out of five — and 5% [of those admitted] will die. And that’s what we have seen before. And that has not changed.”
Hospitals filling up
At a news conference Thursday, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker warned that if the state continues on its current track and if people don’t change their behaviors, hospitals will be overrun.
“We are going to experience a surge in hospitalizations much higher than where we are now,” he said. “And in some areas of our state, that will mean that you’ll run out of hospital beds, and nurses and doctors who can treat you.”
Hospitalizations are already on a steep rise — the state has seen a 120% increase since the beginning of October, Pritzker said. And Sahloul is seeing that firsthand. He’s watched the intensive care unit at his hospital fill to 90%, mostly with COVID-19 patients, in the past few weeks, he said.
“I’m seeing very sick patients in the intensive care unit on life support and mechanical ventilation,” he said. “Many of them requiring the highest level of support; some of them are dying. I’m seeing it become patients that we used to see … which is mostly minority patients … Latinos, African Americans.”
As hospitalizations increase, Sahloul predicts safety net hospitals, which serve mostly low-income people of color, will suffer the most. These hospitals don’t have the capacity or resources to expand ICU’s or hire more nurses, the way bigger, richer hospitals might.
During the pandemic’s first surge, that disparity contributed to a disproportionate number of deaths in Latino and Black communities across the country.
“We want to avoid that, and I think the city and the state has to look at this disparity more carefully,” he said. “[The state should be] directing more resources to hospitals on the frontline, and by the frontline I mean in the West Side [and] South Side of Chicago,” he said.
A shortage of nurses and PPE
Falguni Dave is a nurse and union representative at one of those hospitals, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital on Chicago’s West Side. She worked in Stroger’s COVID-19 unit this past spring.
During the pandemic’s lull this summer, Dave said PPE stopped coming regularly like it had been during the first surge. Her hospital closed down most of its COVID-19 units, and nurses had to start asking management for new masks, face shields or gloves every time they ran low on supplies.
“That’s been a problem, because not having the PPE readily available makes it difficult for us to do our job,” she said.
Her hospital has started preparing to treat an increase in COVID-19 patients by expanding it’s ICU unit, but she said she has yet to hear about plans to increase PPE supply as hospitalizations increase.
She’s also concerned about a staffing shortage.
Dave said nurses are already seeing six patients when they should be seeing four. And in the ICU at her hospital, where nurses typically treat just one patient, they are currently caring for four.
“The nurses are short staffed … and that’s not safe at all,” Dave said.
The Cook County Health and Hospital system, which oversees Stroger, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Dave’s concerns.
A deadly winter ahead
During the first peak of the pandemic, Illinois saw a record 192 deaths in one day. Sahloul said the 97 deaths reported Thursday make him worried that the state is once again headed for those high death counts, or even higher.
“It looks depressing,” he said. “We’ll be in the beginning of the winter season, where we expect more cases to come because people are more indoors. There is COVID fatigue, so people are mixing and having house parties.”
He and others, including Pritzker, are looking to Europe for what’s to come. The continent is currently seeing cases and hospitalizations soar. That has spurred new restrictions on life and business, including lockdowns and curfews.
“Remember that Europe fared much better than the United States over the last five months. So when they impose those severe mitigations, it’s an indication that the virus is raging out of control there, and we are heading in a similar direction,” Pritzker said at a news conference Thursday.
As health care workers head into the winter without a vaccine, with rising cases and with concerns over staffing and PPE shortages, many said they do have one thing working in their favor: “We are mentally more prepared and psychologically more prepared than before,” Sahloul said.
Dave reiterated a sentiment that she said has carried her through the past seven months: patient care comes first.
“Regardless of what we personally feel about, you know, being scared or getting sick … that’s on the back burner as far as nursing is concerned.”
Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.