Amid surge in Illinois, who counts as a hospitalized COVID-19 patient may surprise you

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FILE – In this Aug. 31, 2021 file photo a R.N. holds the hand of a COVID-19 patient in the Medical Intensive care unit (MICU) at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Boise, Idaho. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare made the announcement Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. St. Luke’s Health System, Idaho’s largest hospital network, asked state health leaders to allow “crisis standards of care” on Wednesday because the increase in COVID-19 patients has exhausted the state’s medical resources. (AP Photo/Kyle Gree,File)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Amidst the omicron-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases in Illinois and across the country, health experts, including White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, have cautioned the public that case counts don’t tell the whole story.

“It is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases,” Dr. Fauci said earlier this month.

While Illinois’ official tally of COVID-19 hospitalizations has more than doubled in the past month to more than 7,000 patients — it’s important to note the Illinois Department of Public Health does not gather data to differentiate people who are hospitalized due to COVID-19-related illness as opposed to people who were hospitalized for other reasons and determined through routine testing that they were positive.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday 40% of the state’s hospitalized coronavirus-infected patients were admitted for “non-COVID-19 reasons.”

In Illinois, health officials said asking hospital administrators to further break-out data would add more stress to an already overwhelmed system. 

“There are numerous caveats that would come with trying to report data this way, not to mention additional resources at a time when hospitals are already tasked to the limit,” IDPH spokesperson Melaney Arnold told WGN via email. “What’s important to look at is the record numbers of people in the hospitals, either due to COVID-19 or with COVID-19, and how to bring that number down.”

NorthShore University Health System told WGN Investigates only 19 of their 141 COVID-19 positive patients at four north suburban hospitals last week were being treated for an ailment other than COVID-19.   

Rush University Health System does not differentiate patients being treated “with” COVID-19 or “because” of COVID-19 because it can be difficult to classify the root cause of a patient’s ailment – or a virus that may complicate their recovery.

“Many patients have several serious conditions –a co-morbidity – that exacerbate the other so it’s hard to say which one is the reason they need to be hospitalized,” said Rush spokesperson Charles Jolie. 

IDPH reports 43% of in-use intensive care beds are occupied by a patient with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. Regardless of the reason a person was initially hospitalized, medical experts have said COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems and those battling other ailments.

There’s little doubt hospitals in many parts of the state have been overwhelmed by an influx of patients for a variety of reasons including COVID-19, delayed care during the pandemic and staffing constraints. Some hospitals have delayed elective surgeries, a costly move rarely taken, because COVID-19 patients have drained already exhausted staff. 

“The situation is growing more challenging by the day,” Mark Beth Kingston, Chief Nursing Officer for Advocate Aurora Health said on Jan. 3. “Ninety-two percent of our inpatients are either unvaccinated, have only received the first dose of the vaccine or are due for a booster.”

Illinois’ total number of hospital bed has increased by more than 1,000 since the early days of the pandemic, while the number of intensive care beds is almost identical. However, there are 300 fewer intensive care beds in present day than existed in late November 2020.

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