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A series on the omicron surge's impact on Greater Peoria, particularly healthcare workers. This series is running the week of Jan. 18, 2022.

'Irrationally optimistic': This Peoria ER doc hopes Omicron's rapid spread will eventually yield lower COVID-19 case counts

OSF's Dr. Ben Kemp poses for a portrait during a Zoom interview with WCBU.
OSF's Dr. Ben Kemp poses for a portrait during a Zoom interview with WCBU.

The current COVID-19 surge is maxing out Tri-County hospitals and sending daily case counts skyrocketing to new highs.

Dr. Ben Kemp is an ER physician and associate medical director of emergency services at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

WCBU's Hannah Alani interviewed Kemp on Monday about what COVID-19 looks like inside OSF, burnout among health care workers and more.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired during On Deck on Tuesday, Jan. 18. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Ben Kemp: [As of Monday, OSF systemwide] … 396 people admitted with COVID. 74 of those are fully vaccinated. 227 are unvaccinated. In the ICU, 63 patients. 13 are vaccinated and 39 are unvaccinated. And then 42 people are on ventilators – this is throughout all of the OSF hospitals, not just one particular hospital – 10 are vaccinated, 25 unvaccinated. And then there's a group in between there that have been vaccinated, but not boosted. That would fill in the gap, if you added those numbers up.

Hannah Alani: Obviously, it's still a majority unvaccinated that are in ICUs and on ventilators, but, you know, 16 vaccinated versus 39 unvaccinated being in an ICU … still having 10 vaccinated people out of 42 on ventilators … What should our listeners take away from those numbers?

Dr. Ben Kemp: I mean, obviously, I would advocate, one of your best ways to reduce your own personal risk is to get vaccinated. That being said, this definitely is an Omicron-specific trend, meaning that if you looked at those same numbers back with Delta, or, you know, when the vaccine was available, pre-Omicron, it would skew much more in the direction of unvaccinated folks in the ICU.

So, you know, it's a little bit of both, in regards to, you know, protecting yourself with a vaccine, as well as understanding that being healthier can also protect you from disease. Many of those vaccinated folks who are in the hospital have lots of other chronic medical conditions, some of which can be prevented with healthy lifestyle, healthy living. And so, you know, that's certainly from a personal standpoint, you know, if you're listening to this, that's an important aspect of being resilient to many respiratory illnesses, but Omicron specifically.

Hannah Alani: Can you speak a bit to the morale among yourself, and your co-workers at this point?

Dr. Ben Kemp: Sure. I mean, I can speak for myself, I think we're all fatigued and tired, from so much COVID over the past two years, and the different challenges that come with each wave. It's sort of like a new issue to deal with, each wave that comes through. It's fatiguing and stressful. But I'm probably actually irrationally optimistic that things are … maybe starting to get to a point where we're going to be able to live a normal life, with COVID in the background. As we've noted, with Omicron, it's sort of burning through the population rather quickly. And once that has happened – and I think we've seen some steep decline in cases where Omicron initially came about, in South Africa – ideally, then you would see, you know, a large majority of the population either vaccinated, or [with] some natural immunity. And then, and then you're talking about, you know, a much lower day-to-day caseload of COVID.

Hannah Alani: You're dealing with COVID, you're dealing with regular reasons people go to the ER, heart attacks, strokes. And in Peoria, you also dealt with a record-breaking number of gunshot wound victims. I'm curious, did your experience this last year in the ER reflect the data, that it was a record breaking year for shootings and gun homicides?

Dr. Ben Kemp: Tragically, absolutely. You know, we have a separate trauma team that responds to our traumas, that involves a trauma surgeon. But our ER physicians also respond to those cases, to help provide airway support. So we're involved with pretty much all the gunshot wound victims that come into the emergency department. Especially over the summer, the numbers were quite high. And that just kind of contributes to the overall stress of the job, I guess, when you're seeing sort of the social ills get magnified. You know, gunshot wound victims, overdoses, depression, mental health crises. Those have all, I think, probably increased in numbers at the same time as this pandemic. And whether it's because of it, or related to that, or related to the isolation … It's hard to say. But some of these things snowball on themselves, you know. You're isolated for a long period of time, not able to humanly connect the way you used to be able to … get depressed, and end up making a bad decision that can be really harmful. So, you know, the emergency department’s always been, you could call it, the “canary in the coal mine.” … We've had, essentially, a front row seat to social ills, because they tend to land in the emergency department.

Hannah Alani: If you had a microphone in your hand and could talk to every household in our community, what would you like to say?

Dr. Ben Kemp: So this might sound a little unconventional, but I would encourage folks to maintain compassion for each other in a time where, you know, people are under a lot of stress. They have feeds of information that sometimes pits one group of folks against the other. And I think that that combination of high stress and information bubbles contributes to a lack of compassion for others. And I don't think that's any way for us to get to a point where we have some commonality in how to handle situations like this.


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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.