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Peoria hospitals struggling with capacity issues again as worst COVID-19 surge in a year takes hold

A stethoscopeat hangs in front of a monitor at the intensive care unit at the Westerstede Clinical Center, a military-civilian hospital in Westerstede, northwest Germany, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. As hospitals across Europe brace themselves for a surge in coronavirus cases over the holiday season because of the new omicron variant, Westerstede Clinical Center is cautiously hopeful it can weather the storm. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Martin Meissner
COVID-19 case counts hit a high water mark for the year earlier this week, with 842 new infections reported over the weekend. That brought the Tri-County region to the most active cases since Dec. 30, 2020.

Peoria-area hospitals are at or near capacity as COVID-19 cases surge across the region.

COVID-19 case counts hit a high water mark for the year earlier this week, with 842 new infections reported over the weekend. That brought the Tri-County region to the most active cases since Dec. 30, 2020.

"We're as taxed as we were almost last year. I want to say we're not too far off from our peak number last year," said Dr. Samer Sader, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health's three Peoria-area hospitals. "So, our capacity to keep absorbing without almost curtailing services in other areas is becoming difficult."

Jennifer Croland is chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

"I think the difference right now, between the surge that we're seeing now, and the other largest surge that we saw last winter, is that there's a vaccine available. And 85 to 90% of the admissions that we're seeing are with unvaccinated individuals, or people who have not gotten their booster shot," Croland said.

Croland said the omicron variant is circulating in the Peoria area, but the majority of cases requiring hospitalization are still a result of the Delta variant.

Sader said over the last 10 days, no more than a couple ICU beds at UnityPoint hospitals have been open at any one point in time. On several days, he said ICU beds are filled again as soon as they become available.

As of Tuesday, Croland said OSF Saint Francis had just 3% of med surge beds and 1% of ICU beds available.

"We've seen just incremental, steady increases in the volume of COVID patients that we have, increasing about 3 to 400% since that Thanksgiving holiday. So currently, about 15% of the patients that are in inpatient beds at the medical center are in with a COVID diagnosis," Croland said.

About 20% of those COVID patients at OSF Saint Francis require ICU care. But COVID-19 patients require more oxygen and more medical care than other ICU patients in general, Croland said. They also typically are in the ICU receiving treatment much longer than other patients, further taxing the hospital systems as bed turnover rates slow down.

That's not only increasing wait times to receive care out to hours or even days for patients in the waiting room, but also causing OSF Saint Francis to turn away patients from other hospitals seeking tertiary care. The hospital is the medical region's only Level 1 Trauma Center.

"It's causing us the inability to serve other people who have acute needs. So when we have a patient who needs to be transferred to us because they have an infection and require a specialist, or maybe they're having a neurological event and require a specialist, or cardiac event, and are requiring a specialist. In those situations, time is very important," Croland said.

At UnityPoint's hospitals, Sader said they're also having trouble finding space to accept transfers. It's also causing the hospitals to postpone elective procedures and move staff around to fill gaps.

"So, we're making those type of decisions, which we don't want to make. We want to provide the care to our community, all the time. Our EDs are open, and we accept all patients, and it's our duty to care for them. And that's how we view it," Sader said. "But it is causing significant stress and a little bit of negotiation and give and take of what we can and cannot do."

Both hospital systems also struggling with staffing shortages, too.

"Unfortunately, the shortage of employees, and the shortage of staff that you can see throughout our community, in many areas of the economy, it also applies to health care," Sader said. "We've also lost a significant number of health care employees, just due to the burnout and the stress of working during the pandemic."

Croland said staffing shortages are growing worse as the pandemic wears on.

"We're almost two years into the pandemic, and COVID fatigue for caregivers is a real thing," Croland said. "And, you know, it's been very challenging no matter what setting you work in, and the preventative measures that we've had to take in order for our health care workers to keep themselves safe, but also in just the struggles that we've had in caring for COVID patients. It's physically and mentally and emotionally exhausting."

Croland said many nurses in particular are leaving jobs for traveling assignments, with pay rates five to seven times higher than what they could normally make. She said health care workers also are getting sick with COVID-19 themselves, leading to additional staffing strain.

Sader said in addition to the total number of infections being quite high, people are fatigued, meaning they aren't taking the same precautions they were a year ago, like masking and social distancing, consistently.

"I'm not even immune to this myself. Even though I see the patients all the time, it doesn't make me immune to the fatigue of this whole thing. So, I think part of it is we're just not as cautious as we were. And more infections is going to end up with more people in the hospital," he said. "And there is a lot of people still unvaccinated, unfortunately. So it's just the reality. And it's a little bit sad, but it is what it is."

Sader encouraged symptomatic people to avoid others and get tested right away, especially if they have a health condition that places them at higher risk.

Croland urged people to get vaccinated, or to get a booster shot to up their immunity if they are eligible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting a booster six months after receiving a full course of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two months after getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.