Health experts from local hospital systems told Crain’s that while they consider the easing of restrictions at the end of February to be “smart” and “sensible” policy, they will be watching closely for signs that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again. They also indicated that healthcare workers are exhausted by the ongoing pandemic and largely frustrated by those who are still not vaccinated.
“People are nervous. They are worried. They’re worried because we don’t want to go backwards,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Robert J. Heavy Institute for Global Health at Northwestern Medicine. “We have come a long way with this pandemic. We are in our third year. People get tired of it.”
Chicago reported 511 new COVID cases Thursday, with new cases down 47% from the previous week, according to the city’s COVID dashboard. The number of new hospitalizations on Thursday was also down 47% from the previous week, and the city recorded 11 deaths, down 30% from a week earlier. The data shows that the positivity rate in Chicago is currently 2.7%, and about 76% of Chicagoans have at least one dose of the vaccine.
“The peak of this omicron wave was so high, so higher than anything else that we have ever seen, that where we are now is still in a very bad place,” Murphy said on Thursday. “It’s not a good place, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
At Loyola Medicine, the surge in omicrons has created challenges for doctors and nurses that they have not experienced in any other period of the pandemic, according to Dr. Richard K. Freeman, the organization’s regional chief medical officer.
“This past surge was the most difficult surge we’ve had since the start of the pandemic,” Freeman says. “We had a lot of patients and not enough staff.”
In addition to the influx of patients, many doctors and staff at Loyola have contracted COVID-19, leaving people out of work for several days. Now that the number of COVID-19 cases in Chicago and across the state is down, Loyola, like many other medical centers, is seeing fewer hospitalizations and a decrease in the number of employees contracting COVD, Freeman said. As a result, Loyola began doing non-urgent procedures again.
Freeman doesn’t understand from Loyola employees that they are overly concerned or nervous about what the lifting of restrictions could mean for hospital conditions. Instead, healthcare professionals are monitoring vaccination rates much more closely.
“They’re far more upset about people who haven’t been vaccinated than about the lifting of mask requirements,” Freeman said. “We know that the likelihood of being hospitalized increases by about ten times if you contract COVID if you have not been vaccinated. That’s where the frustration is with medical professionals right now.”
Frustration over vaccine hesitancy erupted at Advocate Aurora Health last month when the system published a series of videos from doctors, nurses, therapists and others explaining the devastation caused by the virus and how vaccinations and boosters are needed to ease the burden on healthcare workers.
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Dr. John Segreti, hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center, says tracking COVID rates over the next few weeks will be critical to determining if Feb. 28 is the right time to lift restrictions.
“That’s a reasonable target date, but as we’ve all seen the last couple of years, just because we plan to do something doesn’t necessarily mean we can do it,” Segreti said.
Dr. Bruce McNulty, chief medical officer at Sweden’s NorthShore Edward-Elmhurst Hospital, said he doesn’t expect lifting restrictions to have a significant impact on the omicron curve, but says it could slow the downward trend in cases and stretch the omicron. shrug off “a little more”.
“The curve is really down sharply right now for omicron infections and I hope it continues,” McNulty said. “Now there is every reason to be optimistic. We experienced a omicron surge.”
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crane’s Chicago business.