CHICAGO (CBS) -- With COVID-19 hospitalizations in Illinois still at their highest point of the pandemic, Gov. JB Pritzker is deploying more than 2,000 additional healthcare workers to help meet the huge demand at overwhelmed hospitals.
Pritzker said Wednesday that the state is bringing in 2.048 contract healthcare workers across the state to help relieve the pressure on hospitals amid the latest surge of the pandemic, fueled by the virulent Omicron variant.
The governor said there are already 919 of those healthcare workers helping staff hospitals that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 cases, with another 552 arriving at hospitals by next Friday.
The state also has created "COVID reaction teams" to respond quickly to crisis situations at hospitals and other healthcare facilities, with 237 healthcare workers in the field already, and another 340 arriving over the next 10 days.
More personnel are being made available to hospitals that have requested federal assistance, including 12 healthcare workers helping at Rockford hospitals thanks to aid provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Out of state healthcare workers also are able to continue working in Illinois during the pandemic to help with treatment of all types of patients, and doctors who got their training overseas can now provide assistance to licensed physicians at Illinois healthcare facilities, according to Pritzker.
"With unprecedented numbers of patients being hospitalized, we must do all that we can to keep our healthcare workers and institutions operating and available to all who need medical assistance. I encourage everyone to help. The most important thing that you can do right now is to get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask to stop the spread," Pritzker said.
The governor said, as has been the case throughout the pandemic, the vast majority of people being hospitalized with COVID-19 are not vaccinated.
"This current wave of COVID is causing more people to get sick than ever before in the pandemic, and the vast majority of the serious illnesses and deaths are among the unvaccinated," he said.
The moves to boost hospital staffing come as Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the state has "smashed" COVID-19 hospitalization records in recent days.
Until early this month, the single-day record for COVID-19 hospitalizations in Illinois was 6,175 in November of 2020. The state first surpassed that record on Jan. 2, and has set new hospitalization records six more times since then.
As of Tuesday night, a total of 7,219 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Illinois, the second most ever in one day, just behind the previous day's record of 7,353. Ezike said more than 80% of those COVID-19 patients are not vaccinated.
"Unfortunately, right now, today, the hospitals are bearing the brunt," Ezike said. "Every hospital bed occupied by someone with COVID, who was not vaccinated, potentially could have averted that hospitalization, and we're making it difficult for people who were having a heart attack, who end up in a car crash, have their appendix burst, have a cancer-related complication. Any kind of medical emergency, we're threatening the ability of those people to get the care they need."
As of Wednesday, only 18% of the state's hospital beds were available, including only 9% of ICU beds in Illinois.
The issue isn't a lack of actual beds of physical space at hospitals, but rather a shortage of staffing, with a significant number of healthcare workers who have left the profession during the pandemic, due to being overworked. In addition, many staff have to isolate or quarantine when they get infected because of constant exposure to COVID-19 patients, further reducing the number of staff available to treat patients.
"Imagine yourself as one of the nurses or the doctors that's going into the umpteenth patient room to treat a person for something that was preventable. Our healthcare workers are burning the candle at both ends, and in the middle as well, to care for COVID patients who could have avoided the hospitalization if they were up to date on their vaccine," Ezike said.
Ezike said less than a tenth of a percent of the 7.7 million people in Illinois who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have been hospitalized after contracting the virus; proving that getting vaccinated is the best defense against ending up in the hospital with COVID-19.
"With record COVID-related hospitalizations here and across the nation, the most important strategy that we're following is to make vaccinations, boosters, and masks as widely available and utilized as possible," Pritzker said.
Meantime, Ezike said there have been signs in recent days that Illinois might finally be turning the corner on the latest surge in the pandemic, although she said "it's too soon to tell" if new cases have finally peaked in Illinois.
"Of course, we would all love to report that good news. We know that we have to continue with masking and vaccinations, and boosting, and we look to get there soon," she said.
Illinois is averaging 32,501 new cases of COVID-19 per day over the past week, the highest daily case average so far during the pandemic, after setting daily case records at least four times in the past two weeks.
However, new cases are not rising as quickly as they were earlier in the most recent surge. New cases have gone up approximately 30% over the past week, compared to a 51% increase the week before.
The statewide seven-day average case positivity rate is at 12%, after recently reaching as high as 15.2% on Friday, which was the highest it's ever been during the pandemic.
Ezike said public health officials need to see a consistent downward trend in cases before they can say the latest surge has hit its peak.
"You really want to see a consistent decline. I will be the first to announce that when we can say that pretty confidently. Crossing my fingers and toes, but I just don't want to get ahead of ourselves," Ezike said.
Like new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations are not climbing as quickly as earlier in the latest surge, with hospitalizations up 5.5% over the past week, compared to a 25% jump in hospitalizations the week before.
Deaths also are still climbing, as Illinois reported the most COVID-19 deaths in one day in more than a year, with 144 new deaths reported on Wednesday. That's the most COVID-19 deaths in one day in Illinois since Jan. 7, 2021, when 174 deaths were reported. The most COVID-19 deaths ever reported in a single day in Illinois was on Dec. 2, 2020, when the state reported 238 fatalities.
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