Column: Omicron strains Southland hospital workers. ‘We’re all exhausted.’

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People who want to survive the pandemic and protect others should get booster shots along with two vaccine doses, wear face masks and keep a safe distance from others whenever possible.

That’s the advice I heard from health care workers who are exhausted as the omicron variant overwhelms hospitals in the south and southwest suburbs with record numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Getting vaccinated and boosted makes sense for many reasons, said Dr. Shanaz Azad, chair of infectious diseases at Franciscan Health Olympia Fields.

“A free vaccine will save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in medical bills, or even a life,” Azad told me.

Anyone 5 years and older is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Thursday, 69.1% of the state’s eligible population was fully vaccinated and 78.3% had received at least one dose, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

But only 41.5% of eligible people had received booster shots that could protect them from the omicron variant, which now accounts for about 90% of cases.

“Not everybody is on the same page,” Azad said. “The patients in the hospital, mostly the ones getting sick are the unvaccinated ones.”

Omicron is less deadly than delta and other variants, but it is much more contagious. If you’re vaccinated and boosted, you are less likely to end up in the hospital. The trouble is, right now there are so many cases. Even though only a relatively small percentage are severe, it’s enough to overwhelm virtually every intensive care unit, or ICU, in the state.

“Our ICU is completely occupied,” Azad said of the situation at the Olympia Fields hospital. “I think we’re all exhausted.”

Dr. Shanaz Azad

Dr. Shanaz Azad (Franciscan Health)

I visited Franciscan Health Olympia Fields in April 2020, when dozens of community members turned out to show appreciation for workers. There was a parade of fire engines and police cars through the parking lot. That felt like a long time ago. I wondered whether hospital workers knew how many people continue to appreciate their service.

I reached out to four hospital systems serving the south and southwest suburbs in recent days. I asked to speak with front-line workers to learn more about their current experiences. I offered to promote messages that health care professionals wanted to share with the general public at this time.

“Two doses of vaccine is not completely effective against this COVID variant we’re seeing,” Azad said. “We highly recommend the booster.”

You may be strong and healthy enough to weather a bout of omicron COVID-19 with relatively mild symptoms. But if you skip vaccines and booster shots, you could be risking the lives of people you know with existing health conditions or compromised immune systems.

This is no small percentage of the population. Great numbers of Americans are obese, diabetic or otherwise at greater risk of severe illness or death.

“Please get vaccinated and boosted,” said Carisa Anderson, senior infection preventionist at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey.

Vaccines could mean the difference between life and death, she said.

“It’s important to realize that getting the vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent you from getting COVID-19,” Anderson said. “But we have medical proof that it can help prevent you from being hospitalized or potentially dying from COVID-19.”

Anderson’s job is to make rounds at the hospital, checking to make sure patients with COVID-19 are kept isolated and that people are properly using masks and other protective gear.

Everyone is working long hours. Many staff members at any given time are isolating at home because they have tested positive for COVID-19. Colleagues are covering for one another as best they can.

“I’m exhausted, as are many of my fellow health care providers,” Anderson said. “But I love what I do.”

We may all be so tired of the pandemic we might forget how medical professionals and other essential workers are heroes who deserve gratitude for their sacrifices.

“I’m coping by finding time to spend with my family when I’m not at the hospital,” Anderson said.

A screenshot of data retrieved Jan. 14, 2022, from the Illinois Department of Public Health website shows daily cases of COVID-19 near a high compared to other points since the pandemic began in early 2020.

A screenshot of data retrieved Jan. 14, 2022, from the Illinois Department of Public Health website shows daily cases of COVID-19 near a high compared to other points since the pandemic began in early 2020. (Illinois Department of Public Health)

Data about COVID-19 are staggering. Statewide, about 30,000 new cases are being reported each day, compared to about 10,000 per day a month ago. More than 44,000 new cases were reported on Jan. 6 alone.

Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox recently reported 135 patients who were COVID-19 positive, compared to 126 during its previous peak in 2020.

The cases are straining the ability of medical centers to care for other patients with serious conditions, like heart attacks and broken legs. Fewer than 10% of ICU beds in the state are available, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

As of Friday COVID-19 was responsible for 29,099 confirmed deaths in Illinois and the suspected cause of another 3,433 deaths, according to the state. The disease has killed more than 846,000 Americans and more than 5.5 million people worldwide.

If a silver lining is to be found at the moment, it may be the hope that this is the worst point in a pandemic that began nearly two years ago. Case counts, positivity rates and hospitalizations may be leveling off after surging for the past month due to omicron.

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“I feel we’ve plateaued,” Azad said. “I hope we’re done with our peak. We aren’t on a decline yet. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Anderson expressed similar sentiment.

“I’m hopeful that we will start to see cases fall as we continue to learn more about COVID-19 and its current and potential variants,” she said. “The surge has not affected my positive outlook that we will see a significant decline in cases in the future.”

Readers could show their appreciation for hospital workers by getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing masks, staying a safe distance from others when possible and encouraging others to do the same.

Ted Slowik is a columnist at the Daily Southtown.

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