Health experts from local hospital systems told Crain’s that while they believe loosening restrictions at the end of February is “reasonable” and “sound” policy, they will be watching closely for indications that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are growing again. They also pointed out that healthcare workers are exhausted from the ongoing pandemic and are largely frustrated with those still not vaccinated.
“People are nervous. They’re concerned. They’re worried because we don’t want to go backwards,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Robert J. Havey, MD Institute for Global Health at Northwestern Medicine. “We’ve come a long way with this pandemic. We’re into the third year now. People are exhausted from this.”
Chicago had 511 new COVID cases on Thursday, with the new case rate being down 47% from the week prior, according to the city’s COVID dashboard. New hospitalizations were also down 47% on Thursday compared to previous week, and the city recorded 11 deaths, down 30% from the week prior. The positivity rate in Chicago currently sits at 2.7% and about 76% of Chicagoans have at least one dose of the vaccine, the data shows.
“The peak of this omicron wave was so high, so much higher than anything else we’ve ever seen that where we are right now is still in a very bad place,” Murphy said on Thursday. “This is not a good place, but it’s going in the right direction.”
At Loyola Medicine, the omicron surge presented challenges for physicians and nurses that they hadn’t experienced at any other point of the pandemic, says Dr. Richard K. Freeman, the organization’s regional chief clinical officer.
“This past surge was the most difficult surge we’ve had since the initial pandemic,” Freeman says. “We had lots of patients and not enough staff.”
Aside from the influx of patients, many of the physicians and staff at Loyola were contracting COVID-19, which put individuals out of work for days at a time. Now, with COVID-19 cases decreasing in Chicago and around the state, Loyola, like many other medical centers, is seeing fewer hospitalizations and a decrease in the number of employees contracting COVD, Freeman says. As a result, Loyola has started to do non-urgent procedures again.
Freeman doesn’t get the sense from Loyola's staff that they are too anxious or nervous about what the lifting of restrictions could mean for conditions in hospitals. Instead, healthcare workers are following vaccination rates much closer.
“They’re much more frustrated by people who haven’t gotten vaccinated than they are by lifting the mask mandates,” Freeman said. “We know there’s about a tenfold increase in your chance of being hospitalized if you get COVID if you’ve not been vaccinated. That’s where the frustration is with healthcare workers right now.”
The frustration over vaccine hesitancy bubbled over at Advocate Aurora Health last month when the system published a series of videos from doctors, nurses, therapists and others, explaining the devastation caused by the virus and that vaccination and boosters are what's needed to ease the burden on healthcare workers.
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Dr. John Segreti, the hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center, says keeping tabs on COVID numbers over the next couple weeks will be crucial in knowing whether Feb. 28 is the right time to lift restrictions.
“It’s a reasonable target date, but as we’ve all seen the last couple of years, just because we plan to do something doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to be able to do it,” Segreti said.
Dr. Bruce McNulty, chief medical officer at NorthShore Edward-Elmhurst’s Swedish Hospital, said he doesn’t expect the lifting of restrictions to have a significant impact on the omicron curve, but says it could slow the downward trend of cases and stretch the omicron wave out “a little bit more.”
“The curve is really on the steep decline right now with regards to omicron infections and my hope is that it continues,” McNulty said. “There’s every reason to feel optimistic right now. We have lived through the omicron surge.”
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Chicago Business.