“We are preparing for a continuing post-holiday surge, and with hospital staff already working so hard, I appreciate the work hospital leadership is doing to assure capacity, including postponing non-emergency surgeries and procedures to ensure their ability to handle serious COVID cases and other emergencies without putting patients at risk,” Pritzker said in the statement. “To all Illinoisans: please understand that the nation is experiencing high COVID transmission rates, and some surgeries in Illinois will be postponed. We’re asking our residents to temporarily hold off on important medical care like tonsillectomies, bariatric surgeries and hernia repair. As we work to keep ICU beds open, I continue to applaud the efforts of our hospitals and healthcare workers across the state, who have been heroes for us all.”
As of Dec. 29, about 17% of hospital beds were open, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data, with 5,689 COVID patients in hospital beds and 20,220 non-COVID patients in beds statewide, leaving 5,552 open beds.
The situation is worse for intensive-care beds. Just 313 ICU beds, about 10%, were open statewide as of Dec. 29. Of the 2,967 ICU beds in Illinois, 1,010 held COVID patients and 1,644 non-COVID patients.
Some hospitals in the Chicago area are still taking in all patients, but taking it day by day.
At Sinai Chicago, non-urgent procedures are still being scheduled, but administrators and staff "have meetings five or six times a day" about capacity and staffing at its two hospitals, Mount Sinai and Holy Cross, said Dr. Russell Fiorella, the system's chief medical officer. Sinai Chicago has about 60 COVID patients in beds right now, up from five to 10 just a few months ago, he said.
"Our highest at the beginning of the pandemic was in the 90s or low 100s, so we're about two-thirds of the way there," he said. "But the other side of the coin is that we're in a nationwide staffing crisis, so that really compounds the situation."
Sinai is operating on a four-level surge plan and is at level 2, with about 15% ICU capacity, Fiorella said. At level 3, there is 10% availability and at level 4 there is none. The system is on bypass, meaning it is not accepting patient transfers from outside hospitals, he said.
So as long as the science says it can keep serving all patients and the governor is still allowing individual hospitals to have flexibility, Sinai will perform non-emergency procedures, Fiorella said.
"In our patient population, primarily African American and Latinx, we see a lot of comorbidities and chronic conditions," he said. "So when we basically turn into a COVID hospital, we put these patients at risk. We have to balance that."
At Advocate Aurora Health, decisions are being made at the site level rather than instituting a policy across all hospitals in Illinois, or at its Wisconsin hospitals.
"Like health systems across the country, our COVID inpatient census is rising quickly with the vast majority of patients being unvaccinated," AAH said in an emailed statement. "We are monitoring the situation closely and remain prepared for continued increases in patients. At times, this has resulted in the need to pause or reschedule some non-critical or elective procedures, depending on local COVID case numbers, staffing scenarios and bed availability. Urgent and emergent services will continue to be available 24 hours a day, and it is critical that patients seek care when needed."
While not mandating an end to non-urgent procedures, the state is asking hospitals to continue to follow the IDPH’s guidance on when to consider postponing elective surgeries and procedures that doctors think can be rescheduled without risking patient harm.
Also, in an effort to increase staffing to ensure care is available, Pritzker has already extended state waivers to allow out-of-state health care professionals to work in Illinois and has invited hospitals to participate in its staffing contract so that they can bring in additional available staff when needed to ensure capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, the statement said.
“Hospitals continue to be on the front line of this fight, and are doing everything in their power to maintain access to health care for all patients. But we need your help. Wear a mask. Social distance. Avoid large gatherings. And please get vaccinated and boosted. Vaccination remains the best way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death,” Karen Teitelbaum, president and CEO of Sinai Chicago Health System and chair of the IHA Board of Trustees, said in the statement.
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Chicago Business.