DECATUR — On some days, 300 people undergo COVID testing at the temporary site on the Decatur Civic Center parking lot.
The data from there and others like it are providing health care professionals with something that wasn’t available when the pandemic first took root earlier this year: details about rate of infection and community spread.
Medical experts agree that widespread testing, and rapid test results, are one of the keys to monitoring and controlling the spread of the virus. That’s especially important now as the region undergoes a troubling surge in cases.
“We’re testing a lot more people, but we have a lot more sick people in Macon County,” said Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, who herself has had COVID. “We’re constantly learning both about COVID and how quickly we can all adjust.”
It pulls data from patients and out-patients in a vast 40-county area served by five hospitals in Central Illinois. Regularly updated at choosememorial.org/COVID19, the graphs are designed to make the public sit up and take notice.
The information is drawn from a recent batch of 2,282 COVID-19 test results in that 40 county area over the seven days up to Nov. 10, which showed a positivity rate of 27.6%. The doctor says that compared to a positivity rate of around 5 to 7% for most of 2020, hence that red graph line meandering along before is suddenly arcing upwards like a moonshot.
“So what that tells us is if I got 100 people off the street now, 27 of them are going to test positive for COVID, versus where we were previously where only five or seven of them would test positive,” said Clark.
The doctor said today’s hospitalized numbers also reflect the previous, lower positivity rates, however. So the truly scary realization is that the new, ramped-up positivity rate is a predictor of what in-patient numbers will look like in the future. “And that means more hospitalizations, and it means more deaths,” he said.
Looking to other states
Some Illinois hospitals also report having beds open, or the ability to expand capacity quickly from springtime pandemic planning. But doing so requires expanding staff as well at a time when hospital workers are also out on sick leave in record numbers because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to someone who has.
During his daily press briefing broadcast from Chicago on Thursday, citing hospital capacity concerns, Gov. J.B. Pritzker chastised local officials across Illinois who have declined to uphold his mitigation measures.
Illinois’ strategy breaks the state into 11 regions. Region by region, the entire state has been subjected to new mitigation measures in recent months that closed restaurants and bars to indoor service and limited gatherings to no more than 25 people. Since then, four regions of the state — those encompassing southern and northwestern Illinois and the south and western suburbs of Chicago — have been placed under slightly more stringent restrictions, limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people and outdoor tables at restaurants and bars to no more than six. But local law enforcement officials in some communities have publicly declared they will not enforce the restrictions, and many restaurants and bars continue to offer inside service.
Pritzker also criticized leaders in neighboring states for failing to implement appropriate restrictions that he says have caused cases to climb in border-city regions. All 11 of Illinois’ regions are reporting test positivity rates in the double digits, ranging from 12.5% in Southern Illinois to 18.9% in northwestern Illinois near the Iowa and Wisconsin borders.
Clark, the Decatur Memorial doctor, doesn’t fault previous efforts by many Midwest states to work together and try and coordinate their approach in dealing with the disease when it first appeared.
“It’s hard to be critical of decisions that were made then,” he added. “Because there was not a lot that we knew back then.”
He said a brave attempt was made to create a multi-state strategy that tried using a coordinated, one-size fits all COVID strategy, but it wound up not working very well. Now, the doctor said, we know better.
“The way I view this, and the way I think a lot of others view this, is that COVID isn’t a pandemic affecting the whole United States, it’s a series of thousands of local epidemics,” Clark said.
That means, he said, the best role for government is to give each region of thecounty the information and options it needs to craft the best response that works for each situation.
But on one point he’s very clear: following the universal personal safety precautions that have been shown to work — social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and avoiding large crowds remains essential. Now, more than ever, those are the things we can all do to stop the spread of the virus.
He said Memorial Health System is coping but what might threaten to overwhelm it is the loss of key staff like nurses and doctors and support workers who catch the virus when they go home.
“It’s a struggle to keep the team in the field, so to speak,” Clark added. “Nurses, physicians and key staff, through community spread, have become ill with COVID-19 and so we have a constant rotation of people in quarantine or maybe they have kids at home who become sick with COVID and the whole family has to be in quarantine. So our real limitation is keeping our providers and our nurses and are staff available to work.”
Those staffing stresses are only likely to become more acute as the rising positivity rate drives ever higher numbers of patients into hospital beds.
“Right now we’re extremely busy, which reflects the positivity rate about two weeks ago, which I think was in the 15-16% range,” Clark said. “So if we’re now nearly doubling our seven-day positivity rate, we can anticipate the doubling of our future in-patient cases.”
The other big frontline medical facility in Decatur, HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital has a policy of not releasing specific numbers on its COVID-19 patient load. Spokesman Andrew Dilbeck said hospitals in the HSHS group were “impacted by the positivity rates” being seen in the communities they serve but were coping well.
“Pandemics and other health crises are what our colleagues and medical staff train and prepare for; it is why we are here for the community,” Dilbeck added. “Having said that, this would be a good time for the community to help us by continuing to wear masks, social distance, practice proper hand hygiene and avoid gatherings.”
As of Thursday around 3:30 p.m., Decatur Memorial Hospital had 49 COVID positive inpatients, Clark said.
COVID-19 Illinois: New cases per day
“We will take care of every single patient that comes in the door, it is just a matter of who is going to do it,” Clark said. “… One doctor may be taking care of a lot more people or one nurse might be taking care of more people but we are going to do everything we possibly can to keep up with these cases and take care of these cases.”
Clark added that they are hiring more nurses as quickly as possible. He advised that the public try to bend the curve by avoiding group gatherings and not being indoors with others who aren’t wearing masks.
“This isn’t so much a national or worldwide pandemic as it is thousands and thousands of local epidemics — and we are right now in our local epidemic,” he said.
What about a vaccine?
Crossing Healthcare in Decatur has been sharing the manning of the tented testing site outside the Decatur Civic Center with staff from the Illinois Department of Public Health, and catering to strong demand.
Continuing to operate in a windswept parking lot during a Midwest winter wouldn’t be so easy, however, but all that is about to change: on Nov. 30 Crossing will open an enclosed and drive-through testing center converted from a former garage at 990 N. Water St. Crossing CEO Tanya Andricks said that will make the testing experience a lot better for everybody, and it’ll be all ready to go for other purposes, too.
“We’ll be all-prepped there so that we are able to do mass vaccinations once we’re able to vaccinate for COVID,” she said. “We’ve redesigned the building so that we could continue to meet the needs of the community moving forward.”
Andricks said test results are now coming back within two or three days compared to the seven to 10 days at the start of the pandemic, and while even faster still is always better, the more rapid availability of test results today represented significant progress.
The best solution, however, is not to get infected in the first place, and Andricks echoed Clark’s warning about masks, sanitizing and social distancing, especially as the gathering temptation of Thanksgiving looms.
“We have to remember that there is not an unending supply of the doctors, nurses and hospital workers and staff to take care of people,” she said. “We have to recognize that we are limited by our local resources and so we as a community have to conserve those resources. The easy way to do that is to do our part and not spread COVID.”
Andricks said the foretold arrival of vaccines holds the promise to be a game-changer, but she said our personal precautions to limit the virus spread are still likely to be needed for some time yet to come.
“I think people need to realize the arrival of a vaccine won’t be immediate,” she added. “It’s got to be manufactured and disseminated amongst a large percentage of the population and that is going to take some time. And in the meantime we’re dealing with a health crisis worse than anything I’ve experienced in my professional career, and I’ve been a nurse since 1995.”
Brandi Binkley, executive director of the Macon County Health Department, said they’ve worked with the state on a plan for when the vaccination becomes available. However, she said, “I think it’s important that people realize it’s not just about a vaccine,” it’s equally as important for residents to help get the virus under control.
Clark watched Wall Street shoot upward like a COVID-19 positivity chart after drug company Pfizer pushed out a news release trumpeting vaccine progress, but he said Pfizer has to show him, not tell him, before he believes.
“If that vaccine comes through in the way that they are characterizing it, and if it becomes available, it will be a game-changer, absolutely,” Clark said. “But I need to see it, I need to see it in action, I need to physically see it in my hand and I need to see it going into patients safely and effectively before I get too excited about it.”
Clark said staff assesses 7-day rolling positivity rates and pointed to the spring and summer, when the positive average was between 5% and 7%. Clark said that has increased to about 27% over the last few weeks.
“What that tells us is we’ve got a lot more activity in the community,” he said. “… And that activity in the community leads to more cases and that leads to more hospitalizations and ultimately more deaths.”
Meanwhile, heading into winter, Pritzker has warned more stringent mitigation measures may be on the horizon.
“With many community leaders choosing not to listen to the doctors, we are left with not many tools left in our toolbox to fight this. The numbers don’t lie,” he said. “If things don’t take a turn in the coming days, we will quickly reach the point when some form of a mandatory stay-at-home order is all that will be left. With every fiber of my being, I do not want us to get there. But right now, that seems like where we are heading.”
39 famous people who have called the Decatur area home
Edwin B. Willis
Howard W. Buffett
Icon For Hire
Jenny Lou Carson
Richard J. Oglesby
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.