‘There’s been a striking increase.’ Unvaccinated fuel Springfield’s hospitalization surge

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Andy Ray and his wife Suzanne Ray hope that people can learn for their experience in getting COVID-19 and get the vaccination. Ray was hospitalized for 23 days at HSHS St. John's Hospital in May and June as COVID-19 nearly killed him.  [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Andy Ray must have repeated it to himself a hundred times, especially in the minutes before caregivers at HSHS St. John’s Hospital leaned his head back and inserted a breathing tube down his windpipe to keep COVID-19 from killing him.

“I kept thinking, ‘If I had gotten that shot, I wouldn’t be here,’” Ray, 52, told The State Journal-Register Thursday. “That’s all I could think of.”

Before going on a ventilator that would help him breathe for five of the 23 days he spent in the Springfield hospital in May and June, the rural Mount Sterling farmer’s thoughts also dwelled on the close family friend who succumbed to COVID-19 in the fall, before vaccines were available. 

Once in the hospital, Ray, who lives about 65 miles west of Springfield, asked whether he could get a COVID-19 shot but was told it was too late for the vaccine to do any good. His wife couldn’t be at his side because she, too, had contracted COVID-19 by that time, though she didn’t need to be hospitalized.

More:Illinois reports nearly 80% increase in COVID-19 cases; health officials urge vaccinations

The couple didn’t get vaccinated before they both got sick in May. Ray said he didn’t seek out shots, which were readily available this spring, because he was healthy, busy on the farm and didn’t think he was at much risk. 

His wife said she worried about potential side effects from the vaccine. She decided to get her two shots after her husband was hospitalized.

Doctors and scientists say many of the unvaccinated in Springfield and nationwide share Rays’ views, as well as other feelings that contribute to resistance in getting a shot, even though vaccine reduces a person’s risk of infection by more than 90%, reduces the chances of transmitting the virus and reduces the risk of serious illness or death by more than 95%.

As new cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and test-positivity rates rise steadily in Illinois, Ray is regaining his strength and visiting doctors to monitor the stress COVID-19 placed on his heart and other parts of his body.

More:COVID-19 shots reduced severity of outbreak at senior living center, health director says

He said he hopes people who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated can learn from his experience. He said he is “counting the days” to when his doctors will allow him to be vaccinated as recommended, even for people who previously had COVID-19.

Andy Ray was hospitalized for 23 days at HSHS St. John's Hospital in May and June as COVID-19 nearly killed him. Ray didn't seek out a vaccination because he was healthy, busy on the farm and didn't think he was at much risk. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

“I just kept rolling the dice for too long,” Ray said. “If people are worried about the side effects of the shot, I can assure them that there are way more side effects from going through what I did than getting the shot.

“The bottom line is nobody knows how COVID will affect them,” Ray said. “When you’re unvaccinated, you’re just kind of on a hope and a prayer that it doesn’t affect you bad.”

Among Illinoisans 12 and older, the group currently eligible for one of the three available COVID-19 vaccines, 27% haven’t received even one dose, and 43% are not fully vaccinated. 

Illinois overall has higher vaccination rates than in adjacent states. Hospitals aren’t seeing intensive care units fill up at the rate being seen in Missouri and some Southern states.

But Illinois medical officials are reporting troubling COVID-19 trends, fueled largely by the highly transmissible delta variant and its impact on unvaccinated patients.

More:Gov. Pritzker imposes mask mandate for students; vaccines for some state workers

COVID-19 cases have increased almost tenfold statewide since early summer. Hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions have more than doubled over the past month. In a recent week, cases of COVID-19 rose 46%, hospitalizations jumped 35%, and 41% more patients were on ventilators. 

Earlier this week, Gov. JB Pritzker imposed a universal indoor masking mandate at public and private schools and said he will require vaccinations among state workers in state veterans’ homes, developmental centers and prisons by Oct. 4.

The governor said Illinois has a “limited amount of time” to cut into the surge so it doesn’t get worse this fall. 

He encouraged every eligible Illinoisan to get vaccinated “as soon as possible, as millions of their neighbors have.

“This vaccine is safe, effective and essentially eliminates the risk of hospitalization and death, even from the delta variant,” Pritzker said. “In short, it’s the best tool we have.”

More:COVID-19 vaccine lottery benefits another Springfield resident with $100,000 cash prize

At Hospital Sisters Health System’s Illinois hospitals, including HSHS St. John’s, admissions of COVID-19 patients have doubled since July.

Most COVID-19 inpatients are adults, but HSHS St. John’s Children’s Hospital has seen increased numbers of children with COVID-19 needing emergency department and inpatient care in the past two weeks, according to Dr. Marc Shelton, HSHS senior vice president and chief clinical officer.

In November, at the peak of the pandemic in Springfield, the 15 HSHS hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin had about 300 COVID-19 patients, including 80 to 90 at St. John’s, Shelton said.

As recently as three weeks ago, there were eight COVID-19 inpatients throughout the system, but that has risen to about 50, with patient numbers in the “high teens” at St. John’s.

“There’s been a striking increase in a very short period of time,” he said.

The delta variant has infected most of the hospitalized patients, and the average age of patients is younger than 50, compared with 70s and older in the fall, Shelton said.

The vaccine wasn’t available in the fall, but 95% or more of HSHS patients hospitalized for COVID-19 now are unvaccinated, he said. 

At Springfield-based Memorial Health System, the trend has been similar. The system’s five central Illinois hospitals, including Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, were caring for more than 180 COVID-19 inpatients in late November, including about 115 at Memorial Medical Center.

In early June, there were about five COVID-19 inpatients across the system, but the number has jumped to about 45, with about half at Memorial Medical Center, according to Dr. Rajesh Govindaiah, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the system.

Eighty-five percent to 90% of the system’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, he said.

Among Sangamon County residents, new hospitalizations increased 190% in a recent week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Wednesday, 18 county residents were hospitalized. Thirteen of them had received no vaccine shots, four had been fully vaccinated, and one had received one of the required two doses, said Gail O’Neill, director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health.

Not as many people are dying from COVID-19 because more are vaccinated, local doctors say. Those who are getting sick are younger, because the older patients have higher vaccination rates, and the younger people are less likely to have chronic health problems that can lead to worse outcomes, doctors say.

At St. John’s, 8% to 9% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are dying, compared with 30% in the fall, but there are still too many preventable deaths, Shelton said.

By comparison, 2% of heart attack patients die at St. John’s, he said.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Shelton said. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

It’s unclear whether the latest surge of COVID-19 across the country has reduced vaccine hesitancy and altered any views.

Read this:Morgan County Health Department confirms COVID outbreak among Jacksonville Walmart staff

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in mid- and late July found that seven in 10 adults either have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine or plan to get the vaccine. A quarter of the unvaccinated said they will likely get a shot by the end of the year.

But most unvaccinated adults don’t think vaccines are effective and consider the vaccines as a greater health risk than COVID-19, the survey indicated.

At least eight in 10 Democrats, adults 65 and older and college graduates report getting at least one vaccine dose. Fewer than six in 10 uninsured adults, Republicans, rural residents and adults younger than 50 say they have gotten a vaccine.

The 50% vaccination rate in Sangamon County “is definitely going to help us,” according to Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, infectious diseases specialist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “But we need to increase the rates further for attaining herd immunity comfortably,” she said.

In fact, some scientists studying the pandemic think the delta strain will require 80% to 88% vaccination rates for herd immunity, rather than the previous recommendation of 70% to 75%, Sundareshan said.

An 88% vaccination rate wouldn’t be possible in Sangamon County unless federal officials authorize vaccines for children younger than 12. That younger age group makes up about 15% of the population. 

Until an expansion of vaccine eligibility takes place, Sundareshan said, “we may continue to additionally need mitigation strategies.”

She said she has treated local residents who have become extremely ill from COVID-19 and yet still doubt the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“People have their fears, people have their concerns,” she said. “I think it’s really all about talking it out and having these honest conversations. It is important that the right scientific message is delivered, and misinformation and disinformation about vaccines need to be taken care of.”

Many people hesitant about getting vaccines change their minds after a family member dies from COVID-19, Sundareshan said. “But again, the perceptions about vaccines and some hesitancy is pretty deep-rooted,” she said.

Andy Ray’s 83-year-old father came down with COVID-19 and was hospitalized for a week in January and later recovered in an assisted-living center. His father’s illness and his friend’s death didn’t push him to get a shot, however, he said, because he was around his father frequently at that time and never got sick.

Ray said he and his wife Suzanne, 43, who works with him growing corn and soybeans and raising cattle, were careful, wearing masks when they entered stores and avoiding restaurants. They have no children, so he said they didn’t worry they would be infected through contact with young people.

Andy Ray, a 1988 Brown County High School graduate with an associate’s degree in diesel tractor technology from Spoon River College in Canton, said he was diagnosed with COVID-19 at his Springfield doctor’s office May 12 when he complained about what he thought was a flare-up in his allergies.

His breathing continued to get worse, and he was admitted to St. John’s on May 20. He was released on June 11.

When he thinks about the dark times he went through in the hospital, he recalls the encouragement and skills of nurses and doctors who helped pull him through.

Ray said his caregivers believe that “proning,” or frequently turning him from his stomach to his back, was key to his survival.

After he emerged from the intensive-care unit, he remembers the nurses in a recovery area.

“They were just extra-positive and hard-working,” Ray said. “I can’t tell you what a difference they made. They were all-stars. … I had excellent care.”

And one of his doctors, in particular, was a “phenomenal person. Amazing. I think you could call him a miracle worker,” Ray said.

Govindaiah and Shelton said the political climate has contributed to the latest surge and the failure of the country to halt the pandemic.

“We’re kind of in an era where opinions are valued more than facts, and many of those opinions are just that, opinion, with no basis or grounding in truth,” Govindaiah said. “I think we had that before the pandemic … but the pandemic has accelerated all of these really kind of corrosive trends.”

 Govindaiah said he worries that the pandemic will get worse in Springfield, though he doesn’t think it will approach the problem being seen in Missouri because of higher vaccination rates in downstate Illinois.

“But for this to truly end, we need everyone to get vaccinated,” he said. “And vaccination is not an individual choice. You are also making a choice that affects everyone you come in contact with, and that is heartbreaking because I get to talk to patients who come into the hospital. They are in anguish and in pain.

“There are individuals here that did not need to get sick, had a way to prevent themselves from getting sick, and they are here in crisis, and it was all preventable,  Govindaiah said.

He said he also worries about the surge’s physical and emotional toll on doctors, nurses and other caregivers after the major surge of last fall and early winter.

“I worry about the people we are calling on again to provide care,” he said. “It was traumatic the first time, but there was an ‘esprit de corps’ and a morale and an appreciation of what they were doing, and that societal sort of esprit de corps doesn’t seem to be there this time.

In November, ICU nurses and doctors saw people with COVID-19 die every day, Govindaiah said, “and we didn’t have the tools to prevent it. Now it’s preventable, and every one of the patients in the ICU hurt the souls of our doctors and nurses.”

Contact Dean Olsen: dolsen@gannett.com; 217-836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.

via The State Journal-Register

August 6, 2021 at 01:31PM

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