People who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID or wear face masks indoors are overwhelming the Quad Cities healthcare system and contributing to preventable hospitalizations and deaths.
Local healthcare officials on Wednesday again reinforced the need for everyone to be vaccinated and adhere to COVID protocols, as Tuesday saw the nation surpass 800,000 total deaths from the persistent, contagious virus.
“I want you to think back to a year ago this week. In an iconic image, Rosalinda Lopez, a registered nurse at Genesis, flexed her arm as her generation’s Rosie the Riveter after proudly taking the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine,” Janet Hill chief operating officer of Rock Island County Health Department, said in a media call Wednesday morning.
“This one image conveyed hope after a long period of darkness, suffering, and death. A year later, we’re still living in that shadowy time before the sun fully rises,” she said. “In the Quad-Cities, we sit at a 60% vaccination rate. That means that 40% of those eligible to be vaccinated have not stepped into the light to end the pandemic. We’re back to overflowing hospitals, exhausted healthcare and public health workers, and grieving families. Except this time, it’s all preventable.”
“When we have complete saturation of our intensive care unit, that means we have 20 percent of our ICU for all the other care we have to provide for our community – patients who have an acute stroke, patients who have a heart attack, patients who have emergent surgery that requires intensive care,” said Dr. Kurt Andersen, chief medical officer for Genesis Health System.
That means if you or a loved one needs emergency care, Genesis has “not nearly the level of care we normally have to take care of any problem – let alone COVID,” he said.
“This is a severe situation; it’s worse than it’s ever been,” Andersen said. “It’s worse than it was a year ago. We have patients waiting for an intensive care unit for days in our emergency room. We don’t have any room; there’s no bed available. There’s no ed available in the region.”
Everybody wants the pandemic to be over, he noted.
“Certainly, I do. Our care team does – they’re exhausted. But we still need to manage the pandemic the best we can, and we need the community’s help to do this. We simply can’t provide the highest level of care to our community when our emergency rooms, our critical care units – the places that our sickest patients need to be cared for – are completely overrun with patients with COVID, and 90 percent of them unvaccinated.”
“We know what works; there’s no debate anymore,” Andersen said. “Vaccines are safe, vaccines are effective.”
Fully vaccinated people should get their booster shot (only about 25 percent nationwide have been boosted) and their flu shot, he implored. People should still wear masks indoors and practice social distancing.
“We know what works and we need your help,” Andersen said. “We need the community’s help. We have tired care teams. We are at the complete saturation of our system for critical care beds.”
Genesis has paused elective surgeries that require ICU beds, because they don’t have the beds available to meet the needs, he said.
“If you need cardiac bypass surgery, yes, that’s elective, but it’s a severe condition that needs surgical intervention,” he said. “You’re waiting until we can find an ICU bed, and there’s the potential that bad things can happen while you’re waiting. We’re already capping and reducing elective cases, and we’ll have to continue to do that.”
“We’ll have less and less capacity to do elective care,” Andersen said. “We simply don’t have the beds and staff to do that, while we’re treating all the patients who are sick.”
They’re not just busy with COVID patients, but with everything needing care, he said.
Dr. Toyosi Olutade, chief medical officer for UnityPoint Health – Trinity, said their health system is in the same situation, actually exceeding capacity for ICU beds.
“The staff is exhausted; they’re working long hours,” he said. “People that normally work a 12-hour shift are working 14-hour shifts.”
“Our resources are not unlimited; they’re finite,” he added. “It’s not easy to keep going for 20 months plus.
“We’re in the same boat; we want this to stop,” Olutade said. “However, our actions will determine whether we can slow the rise of infections. We can’t just sit and hope and not take the necessary actions. We all want to gather for Christmas with our family; we want to go for Christmas services at church, and that is great. We have to take precautions that are necessary in those situations.”
Masks and vaccines are essential for that, he said. Yet, full vaccination rates in the QC (for those 12 and up) range from 60% in Clinton County, to a high of 68% in Muscatine County.
“This is all hands on deck. There is a lot we can do to help our community and our health system,” Olutade said. “In this season of giving, the best gift you can give right now is to take necessary precautions – including vaccinations and getting boosted, and masking in indoor spaces. Those gifts are priceless for the health care teams right now.”
Olutade is seeing the same thing with elective surgeries, noting an open-heart surgery had to be postponed recently, because of the COVID situation.
“These are major surgeries. We have lung cancer surgeries we have to wait,” he said.
Health department head is scared
“As a member of this community, who lives here, works here, and is raising a family here, I’m scared that both of our hospital systems – that my family and I depend on for care when we need it – may not be available for us,” said Amy Thoreson, director of the Scott County Health Department.
“I’m also really frustrated. Public health has no other tools at its disposal to change the current COVID-19 situation around,” she said. “We can only offer vaccines, test kits, and promote masking – all as widely and loudly as possible. It’s now up to our community. It’s up to each resident to make a choice to be part of the solution, or unfortunately, be part of the problem.”
People may not like the solution (vaccines and masks), but they can’t like the current situation either, Thoreson said. “Choices are hard; now is the time to act.”
Nita Ludwig, administrator of the Rock Island County Health Department, said that as of Wednesday, the total number deaths in the county due to COVID is now 399.
“Everyone 5 and older has plenty of opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” Ludwig said. RICHD holds walk-in vaccine clinics for everyone 12 and up on Tuesdays and Fridays, 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
They have been averaging 150 shots per clinic day, but they can do more, she said.
“The time to act is now. The sooner we get vaccinated, sooner we can end this pandemic,” Ludwig said. “These small steps will all help us get back to the things we love and the people we love.”
Thoreson said her department is using social media, traditional media, and community partners to identify pockets of the population that have not been vaccinated.
“We’ve been talking about COVID vaccine for a year now,” she said, noting every pharmacy continues to advertise and promote it. “We’re continuing to look at ways to message and provide special opportunities for groups like the homeless. We also continue to offer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the health department, on a walk-in basis.”
Impact of Omicron is minimal so far
Dr. Louis Katz, medical director for the Scott County Health Department, said the impact of the new Omicron variant in Iowa and Illinois is still minimal. “The surge that we’re dealing with now is all Delta,” he said. “I fully expect Omicron to become more common, but it’s not what we’re dealing with now.”
“Breakthrough infection in the vaccinated is expected,” Katz said. “The point is that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, ICU care, mechanical ventilation and death when breakthrough occurs.
“You get less sick if you’re vaccinated,” he said. “Looking at who’s in the ICUs is the best evidence we have of that. Ninety percent of ICU COVID admissions are unvaccinated.”
In a briefing on Tuesday with state and local health officials and representatives of public health labs across the nation, CDC officials warned of two possible scenarios. The first was a tidal wave of infections, both Omicron and Delta, arriving as soon as next month, just as influenza and other winter respiratory infections peak.
Dec. 15 marks the one-year anniversary of Genesis staff starting to get COVID vaccinations. They have reached a 90-percent rate among staff, including 98% or more among physicians, Andersen said.
“We’ve had very good response from our staff to vaccination,” he said. “We have seen significant improvement in the number of staff who have had ill calls because of COVID, so the vaccine has worked in protecting our workforce.”
They’ve also had good response to staff getting booster shots, Andersen said.
Pfizer presented data to federal regulators Tuesday, saying its COVID oral antiviral pill shows promising results fighting coronavirus among infected people and even appears to work on the new Omicron variant.
According to the research, the treatment was very effective for high-risk adults who got infected and took the pill within three days of symptom onset.
Olutade is looking forward to getting the Pfizer pill for COVID in the Quad Cities.
“That would be awesome to have another tool in our toolkit,” he said. “It also hinges on early diagnosis, so you have to get tested early enough for the pill to be effective.”
“I can’t wait to have one more thing for us to have to fight off COVID-19,” Olutade said.
To find a COVID vaccine near you, visit vaccines.gov.