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URBANA — A local doctor treating COVID-19 patients in the hospital is urging those with symptoms to seek treatment sooner rather than later.

In some cases, people with such symptoms as fever and shortness of breath have waited too long to come to the hospital, said Dr. Karen White, a critical care physician at Carle.

“If they come in early, we can start those treatments early,” she said.

That advice follows a rapid rise in COVID-19 deaths in Champaign County, with the total growing from 12 to 17 in just five days. The fatality announced Wednesday involved a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions, C-U Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde said.

In broad terms, those who have passed away from this disease have largely been older with other health conditions that weaken their ability to fight off the coronavirus’ effect on the body, White said.

But that’s not always the case, she said.

While Champaign County’s latest five deaths reported Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday were among older adults in their 70s, 80s and 90s, the youngest person to die of COVID-19 in the county has been 38.

“For the most part, you are less at risk for becoming extremely ill when you’re young, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t,” White said.

What White has seen among COVID-19 patients admitted to Carle Foundation Hospital has been a higher percentage of obese people versus those at a healthy weight, she said.

She’s also seen the major symptoms among those coming to the hospital being fever, shortness of breath and low oxygen levels, she said.

Among those who have died are patients who had lungs so damaged they had to be placed on mechanical ventilation, followed by multi-system organ failures, she said.

It’s not known exactly why, but in some people, the immune system revs up so much in an attempt to fight off the infection, it becomes overwhelming, White said.

Older adults and those with other chronic health conditions are often already frail, she said.

“Their reserves may be revving up, but they just don’t have the reserves to fight through an infection like this,” she said.

And given that COVID-19 affects the lungs when it becomes severe, people who already have lung damage from asthma, COPD or smoking “get sick very quickly,” White said.

It’s important to note that among those COVID-19 patients who have been at Carle Foundation Hospital, there have been more who have survived than those who have died, White said.

Carle has discharged about 60 hospitalized COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began, and that’s included patients from other counties who aren’t counted in Champaign County’s cases and some who have been in intensive care.

“We have seen some of our patients who are in the ICU recover,” White said.

Carle is using any of three treatments on COVID-19 patients, and even after a patient is placed on a ventilator, “we do not give up,” White said. “We continue to treat. We continue to fight for the patients the best that we can.”

Treatments being used at Carle include the antiviral medication remdesivir, the steroid dexamethasone and convalescent plasma therapy under a clinical trial Carle is participating in with Mayo Clinic. The clinical trial is testing the use of plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients in those who are currently ill.

While there haven’t been enough COVID-19 patients in Carle hospital to measure the success of these treatments locally, White said, what she can say based on available literature is that treatment works better when it’s started early.

This is a disease people don’t quickly recover from once they get very sick, White warned. Sometimes, Carle is caring for COVID-19 patients in the hospital a week or more, sometimes a month or more.

It can be draining for front-line caregivers as they see hope draining away for the patients’ families, she said.

“We’re trying to tell the family, I know it looks bad,” she said. “We’re still supporting your loved one. We still have hope.”

For those who may be delaying care out of fear of coming to the hospital, White said it’s important to seek care right away for shortness of breath that can make it difficult to get up and for a fever that persists longer than two to three days.

It’s also important to note that COVID-19 patients are housed in a separate area of the hospital for everyone’s safety and that the providers caring for them change into personal protective equipment as they see the patients and change out of it as they leave that area of the hospital, White said.

As one of those frontline COVID caregivers, White joins others urging everyone to wear face masks in public places and maintain 6-foot distances from others. And remember, she urged younger people, there are parents and grandparents out there at higher risk.

Pryde said she doesn’t understand why anyone of any age would roll the dice and risk infection and serious illness when so much about COVID-19 and its long-term impacts remains unknown.

“Everybody wants to look at every death and say, that can’t be me,” she said.

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