There are now more than 100 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the NorthShore University HealthSystem’s facilities, a 500 percent increase over a month ago, when there were only 20.

“We’re very concerned,” says Dr. Neil Freedman, NorthShore’s Director of Critical Care and Immunology. The number of COVID cases has been growing dramatically across Illinois, including in suburban Cook County.

Evanston-based NorthShore is concentrating COVID care at its Glenbrook Hospital, where there are 104 coronavirus patients, including nine in the Intensive Care Unit. There are also five virus patients in Evanston Hospital, including one in the ICU.

While the system could add more COVID beds at hospitals such as Evanston and Skokie, as well as adding some in Glenbrook, the issue is “more one of staffing than of physical beds,” he says.

First of all, COVID patients typically require more attention than do patients dealing with other illnesses or post-surgical recovery. Instead of working with, say, five or six patients, a nurse could only take care of three with COVID.

Then there is another problem. Dr. Freedman says the NorthShore system can be short 60-to-80 nurses a day, due to community COVID exposure. He says nurses are not getting COVID in the hospital, but rather are being exposed to it via home, neighborhood, or perhaps from their children through school. He says most of the nurses do not actually have the virus, but rather must spend a quarantine period away from work.

There is yet an additional issue which is different than the original COVID outbreak in the spring. In March and April, elective surgeries were cancelled, freeing up additional staff to deal with COVID. Those surgeries are now taking place, although they are now being prioritized to reduce the number.

Plus, unlike in the spring, people are no longer afraid to come to the emergency room for fear of contracting COVID. While it’s good that those people are not postponing necessary care, it also puts more staffing pressure on the hospital when they show up. NorthShore’s system is currently at 90% of patient capacity, according to spokesperson Colette Urban.

Besides NorthShore, the other hospital in Evanston, Amita St. Francis, reports 17 COVID inpatients, as well as 20 others under investigation for possibly having the virus. A breakdown was not available for the number in the ICU.

One bit of good news — there are now medications such as remdesivir, and also steroids, which can help some patients recover more quickly from COVID. But despite recent news reports about positive vaccine trials by the drug company Pfizer, any widespread vaccine distribution is months away, if not longer.

So hospitals are expecting things to get worse before they get better, especially as more people stay indoors as the weather gets cold. Doctors fear holiday gatherings will only lead to even further spread. “People have let their guard down,” says Dr. Freedman. “If things continue on the current trajectory,” he says, “we will have over 200 COVID patients in the next couple of weeks.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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