Edward-Elmhurst Health has been preparing for another surge in COVID-19 infections since the initial outbreak strained the hospital system in the spring.
Sure enough, the two hospitals began to see a steep spike in coronavirus admissions last month, with daily patient volumes now surpassing previous highs, said Dr. Sanjeeb Khatua, chief physician executive and COVID-19 incident commander.
As the rate of community transmission continues to climb, he said, health care leaders worry whether their emergency response plans will be enough to handle the pandemic’s fall wave.
“We expected a second surge,” Khatua said during a virtual Naperville town hall meeting Monday night. “But we didn’t expect it to actually hit this fast and this hard.”
As of Tuesday morning, the hospital system was treating 175 inpatients with confirmed COVID-19 cases — 84 at Elmhurst Hospital and 91 at Edward Hospital in Naperville. That’s more than six times the number of virus patients hospitalized at the beginning of October, data shows.
The hospitals are now heading into their peak winter months, when patient volumes typically rise by 20% each year, said Lynn Cochran, chief nursing officer at Edward. Paired with the influx of COVID-19 admissions, she said, that scenario poses “a number of staffing challenges.”
Hospital officials have no intention of halting elective surgeries or preventive care, Khatua said, but inpatient numbers and physician schedules are monitored daily to ensure they have enough workers to handle the surge. Physicians and nurses in other departments have offered their support as well and remain cognizant of the virus’s strain on resources.
But leaders say community compliance is the most effective way to prevent the new wave of infections from overwhelming hospital systems.
Naperville has been reinforcing that message through an ongoing public service campaign aimed at encouraging residents to wear face coverings, wash their hands and follow social distancing guidelines, Mayor Steve Chirico said.
With public health metrics and hospital data trending in the wrong direction, he said, a citywide mask mandate isn’t entirely out of the question.
The city’s goal has been to not only enforce “good social behaviors and safety precautions, but to try to help mitigate some of the economic damages that occur as a result of the pandemic,” Chirico said. “It’s a fine line.”
While the spring surge was full of uncertainty, hospitals have been seeing some positive trends this time around as employees learn how to better care for COVID-19 patients, begin treating them earlier and use more noninvasive procedures, said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, an infectious disease specialist.
Edward-Elmhurst inpatient mortality rates have declined from nearly 12% in the first surge to just over 6% since Oct. 1, according to the hospital system. The average length of stay dropped from 8.86 days to nearly 6 days, and fewer patients need to be admitted to the intensive care unit or put on ventilators.
Still, city and hospital officials know their front-line workers are exhausted nine months into the pandemic as they continue treating some of the sickest patients in the most dire situations.
“What you have done is nothing short of heroic,” Chirico said. “Getting us to where we are today, taking care of our community through very challenging circumstances, has been something that I think will go down as a moment in time.”