| Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD — The critical care unit where COVID-19 patients are treated at SwedishAmerican Hospital was unusually calm on Friday.
It’s been anything but over the past two months as a second wave of the coronavirus has struck the country.
“Today looks like a calm environment, but it hasn’t been like this,” nurse Alicia Salazar said Friday while providing the Register Star with a tour of the facility. “Usually there are people running everywhere and we’re at maximum capacity.
“Everybody is so sick and requires so much care and I think everyone feels like they’re being pulled in all these different directions.”
Over the past several weeks, doctors and nurses at Swedes, a division of UW Health, have been pressed into long, sometimes chaotic shifts to keep up with the rising number of coronavirus patients.
The growing numbers have put pressure on the staff and on the physical limits of the hospital, where a conference room has been converted into a patient ward as an unconventional means of handling the increasing number of patients.
More: COVID-19 surge pushes other patients to former conference room at SwedishAmerican in Rockford
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 have spiked in Rockford and across the state, with 6,175 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across Illinois as of Saturday morning. That’s a 268% increase since Oct. 1, according to Illinois Department of Public Health figures. It’s putting immense pressure on health care workers who are struggling to keep up.
Salazar is on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, working on SwedishAmerican’s floor that is now fully devoted to COVID-19 patients. People are working hard, sometimes taking on 16-hour shifts.
“The challenges that this pandemic has caused have been substantial and staff are working harder than ever, or harder than I have ever seen,” said John Patterson, manager for the 10th floor, which is dedicated to COVID-19 patients who don’t need critical care or are recovering after being in the CCU.
Prayer, her three children and exercise keep Salazar mentally grounded when the job becomes too stressful, she said.
Salazar isn’t alone. On the 10th floor are more COVID-19 patients. The hospital has had to make room for more beds and COVID space as it responds to the pandemic.
Every morning at 10 a.m. nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, case managers, and more gather in the critical care unit around the nurse’s station, a location that lets them still monitor patients.
At the daily 10 a.m. meeting, the staff provides patient updates and shares special individual needs and anything else that’s pertinent to patients’ well-being.
The floor has four pods — A through D. Each pod, or wing, has a cluster of rooms. There are 30 on this floor. Unlike the traditional hospital room, these are glass, which allows the staff to monitor patients without stepping into the room each time.
Patient information, such as ventilator settings, is written in black marker on the glass window. One window has “day #24” in the corner. That’s how long that person has been in the critical care unit.
Nurses enter rooms fully covered in personal protective equipment.
It makes their job more difficult, said Salazar, who has worked on the floor since 2012 and at Swedes since 2009.
“I’m hot and my glasses fog up,” she said.
“It’s very challenging because each time you go into a room you have to switch out your PPE,” Patterson said.
More: ‘Tired to the bone’: Hospitals overwhelmed with virus cases
More: Illinois hospitals treating record number of COVID-19 patients
Salazar said the staff constantly needs additional space. At first, COVID patients were placed in just one section of the hospital, but now they’re in the critical care unit and on the seventh, ninth and 10th floors. The hospital tries to assign one nurse to every two patients, but circumstances can change by the day, she said.
“I worry in the months to come that if the surge stays like this, we are still going to have people who are going to have bad side effects to cancer treatment and require critical care,” she said.
“We’re still going to have people who get in motor vehicle accidents and require critical care. What about those having heart attacks and strokes in our community? If we stay at this capacity, where do those people go?”
Salazar was inspired to work in health care field by her mother’s own career as a nurse. And as a teenager, Salazar needed brain surgery after a car crash.
“It’s important for people to be empathetic of other people’s circumstances,” she said. “Until you experience something yourself, it’s difficult to understand. I feel like I can relate to people who, say, wake up on a ventilator.”
She just wants the community to take the virus seriously.
“This isn’t a joke or a hoax,” Salazar said. “We’re not trying to take away your personal liberties. This is about being a better human and allowing us to get through this and save as many lives as we can because people are dying.”
Upstairs, on the 10th floor, are more COVID-19 patients.
“This is literally ground zero for COVID, along with the (critical care unit),” Patterson said. “We see every diagnosis, so if someone is having a hip procedure and they find out they have COVID, they have the hip surgery and then come up here because they have COVID.
He added, “It’s a step down from the” CCU, noting that most beds are full and as of Friday, all the patients had COVID-19.
On Thursday, Mercyhealth, OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony Medical Center and SwedishAmerican were treating 193 inpatients who had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Winnebago County Health Department. It will next update hospitalization numbers on Monday.
On Swedes’ 10th floor, the staff sees more happy endings, Patterson said. When a COVID patient is discharged, the staff plays the “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky.”
‘The way it deteriorates’
Dr. Mohamed Yaser Zeater, a pulmonologist, said dealing with COVID patients is unlike anything he or his colleagues have ever experienced.
“The way it deteriorates … someone healthy goes from minimal disease to severe disease in a matter of hours,” he said.
The job comes with many challenges, but dealing with patients’ families is particularly difficult, Zeater said. He has to explain to them that the virus causes rapid deterioration.
One of his patients arrived able to speak. Hours later, Zeater was telling the family that their loved one was struggling to breathe and later needed to be put on life support.
“It’s a lot of emotions,” he said.
His plea is for people to do their part by following the guidelines set forth by public health officials. That means no gatherings just yet.
“The virus does not always follow the rules,” Zeater said.
“Parties should be delayed, gatherings should be delayed. If you participate in those parties and (gatherings), you’re helping to spread the disease; you’re not helping your community.”
Video: Nursing on the front line against COVID-19
Alicia Salazar, a registered nurse at SwedishAmerican, explains why the battle against COVID-19 is as urgent as ever
The Illinois Department of Public Health on Saturday reported 11,891 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, including 127 additional deaths.
As of Saturday afternoon, IDPH reported a total of 646,286 cases since the pandemic began, including 11,430 deaths.
The state moved back to strict restrictions on Friday, as it entered Tier 3 mitigation levels. The restrictions close most places where people tend to gather, such as bars, theaters, and museums. Indoor dining is banned, except for outdoor service. Legal capacity has decreased for places such as hair salons, stores, and health and fitness centers.
SwedishAmerican and the county’s other health care system, are managing COVID-19, said Sandra Martell, chief of the Winnebago County Health Department, and Dr. James Cole, surgeon-in-chief at SwedishAmerican, at a news conference earlier this month.
Martell said concern remains about another surge a week or two after the Thanksgiving holiday. That has been the experience since Easter, she said.
“We’ve been warning you,” she said. “If you look a week after a holiday, we have had a spike in cases. We’re trying to get people to stay at home as much as possible.”
Until a vaccine is available to the public, Cole is urging people to do their part by following the guidelines set by public health officials.
Pfizer announced earlier this month that an early analysis showed its vaccine was more than 90% effective. Cole said that he understands some people are leery of vaccines but recommended that everyone get the vaccine when it becomes available — as he said he will.
All the health care systems are doing the best they can to manage the surge.
“There are only so many supplies,” Cole said, “but we’re not there yet. It is really getting bad — twice as it was during the last surge.
“We’re doing everything to acquire more of everything we need, but there will be a point when that limit gets saturated.”
OSF Healthcare declined to share exact figures but said in an email statement that there has been a “steady increase” in the number of COVID-19 patients across all of its hospitals throughout Illinois and the upper peninsula of Michigan.
“We have an emergency operations plan for each hospital, including OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony Medical Center, that contains a surge and staffing plan,” hospital officials said.
Currently, they have no shortage of PPE, beds or health care providers.
Mercyhealth’s System chief nursing officer and vice president Deb Potempa said in a statement that one of the challenges has been staffing. Mercyhealth is seeing an increase not just of COVID patients but of those with chronic conditions and serious acute conditions such as heart failure and stroke.
“We continue to monitor our volume and PPE on a daily basis,” Potempa said in an email statement. “Our challenge is the same as most and that is staffing. Ensuring our staff remains healthy is a priority and we need everyone in our community to help us with this.
“Every day, I am amazed watching our leaders work together with our physicians and nursing teams to make decisions during these challenging times. They truly do whatever it takes to take care of patients that need care. Right now, it’s more important than ever to help keep our hospitals from needing to activate surge plans by working together to continue wearing masks, practice good hand hygiene, use social distancing measures, keep gatherings small and seek medical care when needed so we can once again, decrease the rise in cases.”
Andrea V. Watson: firstname.lastname@example.org; @andreavwatson12