Nurses work 18-hour shifts while administrators are pulled from their offices and outfitted with personal protective equipment to help staff the hospital’s bustling COVID-19 testing site.
Other workers scramble to clear an intensive care unit bed that’ll immediately be filled by another coronavirus patient.
For the others waiting in line for critical care — including heart attack victims, car crash survivors and others who haven’t come down with severe respiratory symptoms from the virus — they’re looking at a five-hour ambulance ride to find the nearest available ICU bed.
And that’s only if the ambulance isn’t already behind schedule from its last out-of-state run with an infected patient.
It’s not a look back to 2020. It’s a September night in southern Illinois this week, nine months after life-saving vaccines were deployed in the pandemic fight.
Thursday marked the fourth straight day with ICU beds filled to capacity in the state’s least vaccinated region, which is home to more than 400,000 residents.
Only about 37% of residents across those 20 counties in the state’s southern tip have gotten a shot, barely half the statewide rate. Combine that with a Delta variant-fueled case spike and a decline in the number of health care workers, and southern Illinois hospitals have found themselves stretched to the breaking point yet again.
“Doctors, nurses and so many other critical workers are tired,” said Airen Herrmann, the hospital coordinating manager for the region. “We’ve been at this for 18 months, and every time you think we’re on the downward slope, that things are returning to some semblance of normality, we get smacked in the face again. It’s really demoralizing.”
Herrmann, who directs the resources that are being stretched alarmingly thin among southern Illinois’ 22 hospitals, said admissions are just as high as they were last winter when the state weathered its worst resurgence.
“The difference is there’s been natural staff attrition since then. People have been burnt out. Some have chosen to leave the field or take early retirement,” he said, adding that COVID-19 has also thrown off school cycles, meaning fewer rookie health care workers are being thrown into the COVID-19 fire.
So while the region’s hospitals still have the physical space and equipment to care for the latest influx of coronavirus patients, there simply aren’t enough workers to take care of them. That’s left staffers to make cold calls to dozens of other hospitals looking for places to send ICU patients as far as Nashville, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Of southern Illinois’ 88 ICU beds — a number that’s usually “totally adequate” for the region, Herrmann said — availability sank to only a few last month, and finally fell to zero Monday as the regional case positivity rate soared over 10%
The system has received a boost from state-contracted health care workers who were sent in, helping increase the total number of ICE beds to 94 on Wednesday, but it still hasn’t been enough.
“The good news is that’s six patients who didn’t have to be transferred many hours outside the region,” Herrmann said. “The bad news is when each of those beds opened, someone else needed it right away.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health said by the end of the week, it’ll have sent more than 100 additional health care workers to the region. The state agency also helped receive federal approval to start sending civilian patients to three V.A. hospitals.
“However, all of these emergency actions are temporary fixes and Illinoisans need to follow the commonsense mitigations in place to stop the spread and stem the tide of hospitalizations due to COVID-19,” IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said in an email. “Getting vaccinated is crucial to reducing the burden on our health care and hospital systems.”
That message has fallen mostly on deaf ears in places such as Alexander County, the state’s southernmost county and home to its lowest rate at 16.9% fully vaccinated residents.
In Chicago — where Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she’s hopeful the city is “turning the corner” on the Delta surge — about 66% of residents 12 or older have completed their vaccine series. Statewide, it’s just over 61%.
The disparity in southern Illinois is the result of “a plethora of disinformation that has been regurgitated to toxicity,” said Rosslind Rice, communications director for Southern Illinois Healthcare, which operates four hospitals in the region.
“We’ve been pounding away saying the disease is the enemy, not each other. But we’re running out of ways to say it,” Rice said. “We’ll still do whatever it takes to have that conversation to change one mind. You trust us to take care of you when you’re sick, when you have COVID — why don’t you trust us anymore when we tell you the vaccine is safe?”
For help finding a vaccine appointment, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.