By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Doctors at UW Health SwedishAmerican Hospital say the number of coronavirus patients they’re treating has reached a critical level, exhausting workers and threatening the quality of care they’re able to provide.
This week the hospital has seen record numbers of COVID-19 patients: 108 on Monday, 107 on Tuesday, 105 on Wednesday and 106 as of Thursday morning, when 23 patients were on ventilators in the intensive care unit.
“Our health care system is exhausted,” said Dr. Tabassum Nafsi, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician. “The whole health care system is burning out because of the amount of resources that are being utilized in taking care of these patients.”
Some surgeries and procedures have been postponed to make room for COVID-19 patients, and the hospital has been forced to find new ways to care for the number of patients it treats. For example, it brought in recliners to put between emergency department rooms so that it could keep up with the number of emergency patients arriving, said Dr. Mike Polizzotto, chief medical officer at Swedes.
“We are over the number of patients that we can safely care for. We are in what we call a contingency and probably a crisis standard of care,” Polizzotto said. “We know in our hearts that if you had shown up two years ago you would get a different kind of care than we’re able to give you right now.”
About 85% of all COVID patients admitted to the hospital have not been vaccinated, and 90% of patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, Nafsi said.
“Get vaccinated. Help us, help yourselves,” Nafsi said. “We have enough data now to prove that the side effects that have been spoken about are very minuscule and the benefit is quite extraordinary.”
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Those who recover after being hospitalized with the coronavirus often have a long road to rehabilitation, said Dr. James Cole, trauma medical director and surgeon in chief at Swedes.
Some of the patients spend up to 70 days on a ventilator and they are “so deconditioned that if, God willing, they can leave this hospital, it’s going to take them six, eight months to recondition in a rehab facility or a nursing home before they can even begin to resume a normal life,” he said.
Approximately 53% of residents in Winnebago County have been vaccinated, according to Winnebago County Health Department statistics. That trails the statewide rate of 58%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“Trust the people that treat people in hospitals,” Cole said. “We see the effects of not getting vaccinated.”
While some surgeries have been rescheduled, no one is denied emergency care, Cole said.
“That’s the burden. That’s the challenge,” he said. “All of the patients in the community who have always required care for the congestive heart failure, the lung, the kidney disease, cancer care, etc., we still care for all of those. But in addition we have over 100 patients with COVID-19, which is 100 more patients than we had two years ago.”
How often other procedures are rescheduled “all depends on the COVID numbers,” he said.
“It all depends on how overwhelmed we get on a day-to-day basis because numbers change rapidly,” Cole said. “They haven’t decreased, but they go up pretty quickly.”
The hospital is also dealing with a staffing shortage, including a vacancy rate of about 20% among its emergency room nurses. That leads to more overtime for doctors and nurses and the need to recruit traveling nurses to bolster its ranks.
“I can speak for all our staff who are in the ICU, the nursing staff, the physicians, everybody who’s working here: We are emotionally and physically burnt out,” Nashi said.