The intensive care unit at St. Bernard Hospital on the South Side is at capacity because of the latest surge in the number of coronavirus cases.
Last month, the small hospital treated more than three dozen COVID-19 patients — about the same number as in July 2020, just before a bigger wave of illness. That has St. Bernard administrators worried.
“This tells you the trajectory of the COVID impact — it’s only going to go up,” says Rochelle Bello, the hospital’s director of infection prevention.
This month, the hospital already has treated 20 people diagnosed with the virus. None of the patients over the past two months were vaccinated. Two died.
City officials tout the low number of hospitalizations even as the number of COVID cases has risen sharply in recent weeks. But some areas, especially low-income communities of color where vaccination rates are low, are getting hit hard. From the South Side to the West Side, the Delta variant of the virus — about twice as contagious as earlier forms — is disproportionately striking Black and Latino communities.
Over the past month, Black Chicagoans made up 26% of the city’s total number of COVID cases, yet they accounted for 56% of hospitalizations and 65% of deaths, according to the city’s figures.
Combined, Blacks and Latinos account for 84% of the recent deaths and nearly three-quarters of all hospitalizations.
“I do worry that there are whole parts of Chicago that are just not vaccinated,” says Dr. Allison Arwady, the city of Chicago’s public health commissioner. “I see these cases and these hospitalizations and deaths, and these are so largely preventable at this point.”
St. Bernard largely serves people in Englewood, a community that badly trails the rest of the city in people being vaccinated against the coronavirus. Fewer than one-third of those living in the area’s 60621 ZIP code are fully vaccinated, the lowest rate in Chicago. Citywide, almost 54% of residents are fully vaccinated.
In recent weeks, St. Bernard has admitted COVID patients from 28 to 64 years old. The hospital also treated — but did not admit — infected children, including a 2-year-old, according to Bello, who says the Delta variant is resulting in far more severe illnesses.
Only about 37% of Black Chicagoans and 46% of Latinos are fully vaccinated, compared with about 60% of whites, despite city officials’ promises that the shots would be distributed equitably.
The low vaccination rates are cause for rising concern as the city and Illinois face this latest COVID surge, caused largely by Delta, which arrived about when Mayor Lori Lightfoot was announcing Chicago’s full reopening in early June. Around the same time, state health officials for the first time recorded cases of the highly contagious variant.
The Delta variant now accounts for more than 90% of COVID cases in Chicago, Arwady estimates.
The city’s reopening — which included dropping almost all of the precautionary public health measures that had been in place for much of the pandemic — makes controlling the spread extremely difficult.
“We still have a lot of people who aren’t vaccinated,” says Dr. Cathy Creticos, director of infectious diseases at Howard Brown Health. “We still aren’t at a vaccination rate where we aren’t going to see a wave of infection.”
With the number of cases dropping prior to the city’s reopening, many Chicagoans stopped seeking vaccinations or even tests, Creticos says.
Demand for COVID-19 testing had decreased so much that Howard Brown Health consolidated testing from 12 locations to just two — in Englewood and Uptown. Two weeks ago, the clinics started to see an increase in testing.
Arwady defends the city’s decision to reopen. She points to the Delta variant as the main reason more Chicagoans are getting sick and notes that, following recently revised guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, City Hall is now advising that masks should once again be worn indoors regardless of whether people have been vaccinated.
“I really want to keep Chicago open if we possibly can,” Arwady says, echoing Lightfoot’s pledge.
On Thursday, Arwady announced that more than 200 reported infections have been reported among those who attended Lollapalooza, the recent four-day outdoor music festival that drew 385,000 people to the lakefront.
But she downplayed that number as nothing beyond what might normally be expected given the huge crowds and said it wasn’t a “superspreader” event.
City officials plan to continue to track cases among people who were at Lollapalooza, which became a symbol of Chicago’s reopening, though some health officials still question the decision to let the festival go on despite the latest surge.
Humboldt Park Health had reached a point where it didn’t have any COVID patients, but that’s changed in the last month or so, says Dr. Abha Agrawal, its chief medical officer. In recent days, the hospital was treating five coronavirus patients, including three in intensive care. None of the five had been vaccinated, according to Agrawal.
“If the trend were to continue in the city or state, we are going to be back at where we used to be,” he says.
The 60629 ZIP code on the Southwest Side has been seeing a high positivity rate in recent weeks even though more than half of its residents are vaccinated. The Latino-majority area is home to many who have been going in to their workplaces, many of them in public-facing jobs, throughout the pandemic. Many also live in multigenerational homes. Those are both factors that make them vulnerable to infection.
Dr. Marina Del Rios says it’s those “essential workers,” such as restaurant employees and housekeepers, she has been seeing lately in the packed emergency room at the University of Illinois Hospital at Chicago on the West Side. Del Rios says she also is seeing people get sick from family gatherings.
“It’s unlike last year, when most people were keeping in their bubbles and masking and keeping their physical distances,” Del Rios says. “We reopened too quickly. We celebrated too quickly.”
UIC’s intensive care area is near capacity, entirely with COVID patients, according to a hospital spokeswoman, who says 20 are being treated for the coronavirus.
Del Rios, who was the first Chicagoan to be vaccinated, is among health professionals critical of the city’s reopening and especially for allowing Lollapalooza to go on.
Del Rios and other doctors, including Dr. Ali Khan, executive medical director of Oak Street Health, say they hope the Delta threat will convince more people to get vaccinated, especially since the shots have been shown to be highly effective even with that variant.
“We actually have something that is darn near miraculous,” Khan says of the vaccines.
At Esperanza Health Centers, demand for COVID testing and vaccinations has risen in recent weeks after waning earlier this summer. At the height of the vaccination rollout, its community health clinics on the Southwest Side were administering 1,500 doses a day, but those efforts tapered off to 50 doses a day, says Dan Fulwiler, Esperanza Health Centers’ chief executive officer. In recent weeks, the clinics have been administering 100 doses a day, Fulwiler says.
He says one woman wanted to get the vaccine but wasn’t able to make an appointment before contracting COVID and dying.
“Their lives are very busy,” Fulwiler says of Esperanza’s patient population. “Sometimes, people are working two jobs.”
At one point, the Gage Park Latinx Council was routinely flooded with thousands of calls asking about getting the vaccine, but it’s getting far fewer now, says Antonio Santos, its executive director.
The community organization has been among those working to get people vaccinated in the Southwest Side neighborhood, which had been hard hit by the pandemic.
“We have to remain diligent and vigilant and precautious as a city,” Santos says. “Just because numbers are down, the way pandemics work, none of us are safe until all of us are safe.”
Contributing: Caroline Hurley, Mitchell Armentrout
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health and Elvia Malagon’s reporting on social justice and income inequality are made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.