CHAMPAIGN — Want to get out from under Illinois’ Tier 3 COVID-19 mitigation rules any time soon?
With mass vaccinations on the horizon, this isn’t the time to ease precautions, area hospital officials advise.
Reducing COVID-19 hospitalizations — currently the one factor East Central Illinois’ 21-county Region 6 is falling short on — is at least partially under everyone’s control, they said.
“I would say if people really want things to change, we have to get people to consistently mask, and unfortunately, people aren’t doing that,” said Dr. James Hildebrandt, vice president of medical affairs at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Coles County, one of more than a dozen hospitals in Region 6.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday that any of the state’s 11 regions can move out of Tier 3 restrictions starting Jan. 15 when they meet certain criteria for reducing infections and hospitalizations. Tier 3 rules include a ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants, but a move back to Tier 2 would include that same restriction.
Region 6, which includes Champaign, Douglas, Ford, Piatt and Vermilion counties, is currently meeting state markers for test positivity rates and capacity levels for hospital beds and intensive care units.
But this region is exceeding the limit on hospitalizations.
To exit Tier 3, a region must have had declining hospitalizations for seven out of the 10 previous days, and Region 6 has had increases for seven out of the 10 most recent days.
Meanwhile, the number of Champaign County residents hospitalized with COVID-19 has steadily risen this week, from nine on Sunday to 23 Thursday.
There were 66 COVID-19 patients in Carle Foundation Hospital as of Thursday, plus four at Carle Hoopeston Regional Health Center and another nine at Carle Richland Memorial Hospital in Olney — all within Region 6.
Also in Region 6, Decatur Memorial Hospital had 17 COVID-19 patients Thursday, while Sarah Bush Lincoln had 25.
Sarah Bush Lincoln had as many as 47 COVID-19 patients in the hospital in early November.
Lately, Hildebrandt said, the number has flattened and remained in the high 20s and low 30s.
“Even though today is better than yesterday was, there is not a significant trend that we can identify at this point, neither downward or upward,” he said.
Decatur Memorial Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ted Clark said surges in October and November were ”absolutely awful for the region.”
But COVID-19 cases at his hosptial have also leveled off to around 20 a day for December and the first week of January, he said.
Lynne Barnes, chief operating officer at Carle Foundation Hospital, said the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations there has also been fairly flat in recent weeks.
But she, Clark and Hildebrant said it’s too soon to tell if there’s going to be a post-holiday surge.
“We’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on it,” Barnes said. “I think we’re certainly not out of the woods yet.”
Clark said it will take until two or three weeks after the holidays for holiday-related infections to turn up in the testing numbers.
It may be even longer than that for people infected over the holidays to end up in the hospital, because sometimes people deal with COVID-19 at home for a time before needing to be hospitalized.
OSF Sacred Heart Medical Center President Brad Solberg said the Danville hospital was expecting a surge after Thanksgiving, but instead has seen a downward trend in COVID-19 admissions.
“I may be too optimistic, but I’m hoping if we get to the middle of January without any huge increases, hopefully we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
That’s especially because vaccinations are underway, he said.
OSF Sacred Heart has had a lot of its staff members opt to be vaccinated, he said.
Carle Health is nearly halfway to having the 11,000 employees in its system vaccinated, according to Barnes.
Sarah Bush Lincoln is also nearing the halfway mark with staff vaccinations. About 1,100 have been vaccinated so far out of 2,700, and some second doses are beginning to be administered, according to Sarah Bush Lincoln spokeswoman Patty Peterson.
People may think exiting Tier 3 restrictions is entirely out of their control, but it’s not, Solberg said.
Wear your mask, keep washing your hands and watch your distances to other people, he urged.
“At this point of where we’re at in terms of not being able to meet that threshold, everything we can do within the county certainly helps,” he said.
Hildebrandt said he sees the best chance of improvement in a number of people being vaccinated.
Many in the Coles County area haven’t been vigilant about wearing mass and practicing social distancing, he said. Dining in at restaurants is still going on, regardless of the state ban, and in some stores, fewer than half of customers are wearing masks, he said.
A behavioral change would be a quick ticket to reducing infections, Hildebrandt said, “but people are not likely to change their behavior at this point.”
“Hopefully, once the vaccination effort has really had a chance to take hold, that will really decrease transmissions significantly,” he said.
Bottom line, don’t let up on precautions and get the vaccine when it’s available, Barnes urged.
“We’re so close,” Clark said.
He understands people are getting frustrated waiting for the vaccine, he said.
Avoid risky behavior such as big gatherings and indoor dining without masks and realize the restrictions are in place for everyone’s protection, he advised.
COVID-19 can be a long illness, with some patients in the hospital for a month, Clark said.
“If we can just stay the course and follow the mitigation efforts, we’ve got a good chance of getting out of it,” he said.