Over the last three weeks, Evanston has seen a staggering surge in COVID-19 cases among residents, far surpassing any previous wave of the pandemic. The city reported 105 new cases on Wednesday, and the seven-day average of daily new COVID-19 positives is now 91. The highly contagious omicron variant has fueled the increase in positive cases, causing many breakthrough infections for vaccinated individuals.
During the pandemic, NorthShore University Healthsystem has converted its Glenbrook Hospital into the primary location for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. As of Tuesday, Jan. 4, Glenbrook had 137 COVID-19 inpatients, a 28% increase in hospitalizations from the 107 COVID-19 patients just four days earlier on Jan. 1, according to Senior Director of Public Relations Jim Anthony.
Less than two months ago, on Nov. 17, Glenbrook had 16 COVID-19 patients. In the seven weeks since then, that number rose 856% to reach the 137 COVID-related inpatients at the hospital today.
To avoid overwhelming the hospital system during this outbreak, NorthShore suspended all non-emergency elective surgeries and procedures from Jan. 3 through Jan. 14 at Evanston, Glenbrook, Highland Park and Skokie Hospitals.
“We are currently informing and rescheduling impacted patients,” a statement from the hospital system said. “Our decision was based on our current COVID clinical and operational protocols to ensure we are providing care and support where the needs are greatest across our health system.”
Meanwhile, AMITA Health Saint Francis, the other major hospital in Evanston, is facing a similar rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations. As of Monday, Jan. 3, the hospital was treating 35 inpatients with COVID-19, up from 11 on Dec. 3. Also on Monday, AMITA reported a record 723 COVID-19 hospitalizations across its entire health system. The previous peak was 654 inpatients on May 5, 2020.
“Like hospitals and systems throughout the area and nation, we’re experiencing our share of staffing and bed challenges; however, relying on the strength of our system as well as our national sponsors, Ascension and AdventHealth, we are accommodating so far,” AMITA Director of Communications and Media Relations Timothy A. Franklin told the RoundTable.
In the Chicago region and across the country, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, omicron is decimating the available workforce at hospitals, creating staffing issues and forcing medical centers like NorthShore to postpone non-emergency procedures. With a shortage of healthy doctors and nurses, basic care needs for COVID and non-COVID patients alike could be at risk, The Washington Post reported last week.
In an effort to curb the spread of the virus and the rise in hospitalizations, the Evanston Health and Human Services Department has instituted a vaccination requirement for bars, restaurants, gyms and any indoor dining locations starting this Monday, Jan. 10. Anyone five and older who enters such establishments will have to provide proof of vaccination with a physical card, photo, app verification or digital immunization record, according to the written vaccination mandate from the city. Additionally, anyone 16 and older must also provide valid identification, such as a driver’s license, passport, work ID or school ID.
Daycare sites, K-12 schools, after-school programs and any school-related activities are exempt from the mandate. During a Tuesday afternoon question-and-answer session with local business owners, HHS Director Ike Ogbo said the vaccination requirement is not meant to be “punitive” or overbearing, but is designed to protect local residents, workers and their families.
“Evanston is not a bubble,” Ogbo said at the webinar. “We have people we welcome to our businesses and our restaurants to dine from all walks of life, and even from areas of low vaccination rates. Our vaccination rate is close to 94% for those who’ve received the first dose, 84% for those who are fully vaccinated, but Evanston is not secluded.”
And even though omicron is more likely to infect vaccinated individuals than previous variants, recent data has shown that vaccines still offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death. According to a study recently completed in the United Kingdom, two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine reduced the risk of omicron hospitalization by nearly 70%.
Ogbo said he hopes this vaccination requirement for restaurants and other businesses will not be permanent if Evanston can manage to control infection rates and hospitalizations in the coming months. If and when case rates return to a much smaller number, HHS will consider lifting the mandate, he said.
Another pressing concern for local residents is the risk that the current omicron wave could pose to in-person learning at public schools. Evanston Township High School conducted its last week of classes before winter break remotely due to an outbreak among students, while Evanston/Skokie School District 65 saw record case numbers in the days leading up to Christmas.
District 65 is set to return to in-person instruction on Tuesday, Jan. 11 after a scheduled remote learning day on Jan. 10, the first day of the second semester. In December, ETHS announced expanded testing protocols for all students and staff when they return from winter break, and the school is set to return to in-person learning next week as planned.
“Our union expects to meet with school administrators this week to learn about plans for next week,” said Rick Cardis, the president of the ETHS Teachers’ Council. “It’s my understanding that school officials will be meeting [with HHS and the Illinois Department of Public Health] this week to get their input on what we should do next week. I’m sure the input from the public health officials will guide what the school does.”
Public health officials have also warned against the idea of trying to purposefully contract the virus just for the sake of getting it over with, citing the clear and obvious danger of long-term effects or severe infection.
“People have called me and said ‘Why don’t I just go out and get it?’ But you don’t know about the long-term effects of this thing, even if you’ve been vaccinated,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, Executive Director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Some people are genetically predisposed to having worse disease. It’s not worth the risk.”
What percentage of people hospitalized for Covid are unvaccinated? WhT percentage of people testing positive in the hospitals were there for other problems first?
I think this information might help calm some fears and maybe, help those still not vaccinated to get vaccinated.
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