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SIU was 'very fortunate' to avoid large COVID-19 outbreaks, chancellor says, as students return home for semester
  • Updated

CARBONDALE — With the start of Southern Illinois University’s Thanksgiving break on Saturday, most students are in the process of moving out and returning home, where they will complete the semester remotely.

SIU planned to end on-campus classes prior to Thanksgiving break when scheduling the fall semester. The goal was to reduce student travel amid the pandemic.

Chancellor Austin Lane said this portion of the semester was challenging, but has gone as well as could be expected thanks to detailed planning. SIU avoided known large-scale outbreaks related to its university community like those that have made headlines in other college towns.

Lane credited his staff with working long hours to coordinate a complex pandemic plan and respond to students’ needs. There were challenges and lessons learned during this unprecedented semester, but Lane said his team deserves “kudos” for their efforts.

“All the way around, we’re not perfect but … compared to other universities and some of the things we’ve been reading about, we’ve been very fortunate. I’m not going to say that we did a better job than anyone, that we had a better plan ... we’ve just been very fortunate to not be in some situations others have been in, and still are in,” he said.

But given increasing cases and hospitalizations regionally as well as nationally, Lane said the plan to have students remain home after Thanksgiving break has proven to be the right one.

The early end to on-campus living is "kind of bittersweet, actually, because a lot of students don't want to leave," he said. "They feel like the semester has been kind of fast. But the timing couldn’t be any better with some of the spikes that we’re seeing out there.”

Throughout the pandemic, the positivity rate for on-campus testing of students, faculty and staff has remained below that of the countywide average. But alongside growing positivity rates throughout Southern Illinois, SIU's also has increased in the past two weeks, data show. Lane said more students have been getting tested in preparation of heading home, as the university encouraged.

SIU Police Chief Benjamin Newman, who quarterbacked the university’s safety plan, said students largely cooperated in adhering to mask wearing and social distancing during the semester. He said the university’s commitment to holding one another accountable for safety protocols helped limit the spread, perhaps more so than other places off campus. “We all understand the gravity of this situation,” he said. “Nationwide, there have been a quarter of a million people who have died. So, we take it seriously.”

To bolster its safety plan, the university spent about $1 million on supplies and additional staff. That helped fund some 3 million disinfectant wipes, 4,000 individual bottles and 1,400 gallon jugs with pumps of hand sanitizer, roughly 7,000 spray bottles of disinfectant, nearly 16,000 rolls of paper towels and more than 42,000 masks, among other items.

Prior to the start of the semester, the university amended its student conduct code to allow for disciplinary actions if students violated health guidelines. But Newman said SIU has not had to take any formal action.

Lane said one area where SIU “maybe missed the boat” and wants to improve next semester is in making sure students know about mental health resources on campus. “We have focused a lot on getting testing and we’ve done that, and we worried about that, but we have not focused as much on the mental health side,” he said.

He said the on-campus counselors and doctors have done a great job handling an increased load of students seeking services this semester. But Lane said he wants to do a better job of getting the word out to students about the services that are available, as some may not have known their options. Lane said students wanted to have an on-campus experience, even though it was curtailed. But students, much like the general population, are facing a lot of stressors at this time, including COVID-19 fatigue.

“It takes a toll on students,” he said. Lane also said it’s important that the university find more ways to safely engage students with activities next year.

Thanksgiving break runs through Friday, Nov. 27. Students will have one more week of regular classes, taken remotely, followed by final examinations, which run from Dec. 7 to 11, followed by a virtual graduation ceremony for those who have completed their course requirements.

While the majority are going home, a small number of students will remain on campus. According to Lori Stettler, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, 11 students are staying on campus over Thanksgiving break; 47 students will be on campus after the break, through semester’s end; and five students are staying over the winter break until the start of the spring semester.

A limited campus staff will be around to make sure students’ needs are met, she said. Some of the students who remain have tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to someone who has, and are finishing out their isolation or quarantine period. Others are athletes or students who need housing for any number of reasons. Stettler said officials are also in contact with off-campus students who are remaining in Carbondale during break because they are in isolation or quarantine.

On Friday, employees dropped off food bags at several of their apartment doorsteps. “We also wanted to be cognizant of the students who are out in the community … and make sure they have a little extra as well to get them through the holiday period,” she said.

The spring semester is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, Jan. 19, one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is about a week later than is typical. As well, there will not be a spring break next semester.

Slightly more classes have shifted online-only for the spring — about 45%, compared to 40% of classes this semester. But Lane said the goal, as it stands, is to welcome students back to campus again in January. It is expected that about 28% of classes will be held face-to-face, and 27% in a hybrid format, involving some face-to-face meetings with an online component.

All students returning to live on campus will be immediately required to take a COVID-19 test. Throughout the spring semester, Southern Illinois Healthcare will continue to offer free on-campus testing on a voluntary basis, as it has been doing since September. SIH, the Jackson County Health Department and SIU partnered to expand on-campus testing, and Lane said he owes much gratitude to those two organizations.

While this is the plan, Lane stressed, as always, it is subject to change depending on circumstances. Officials will continue to closely monitor key COVID-19 metrics throughout the winter break, and communicate with local and state health and education officials, he said. 

Lane said the university also has a close eye on developments related to vaccines, though information is scarce at this point.

Newman, the SIU Public Safety director, said there have been some initial conversations with the Jackson County Health Department in terms of how a vaccine may be distributed. “But there are so many unknowns right now as far as the timeline goes and implementation,” he said. “The planning is very fluid at this point.”

Look back: SIU Carbondale students move into campus housing at the beginning of fall 2020 semester

Photos: SIU Carbondale students begin moving into campus housing

Pfizer seeks emergency vaccine use
  • Updated

Pfizer formally asked U.S. regulators Friday to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, starting the clock on a process that could bring limited first shots as early as next month and eventually an end to the pandemic — but not until after a long, hard winter.

The action comes days after Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech announced that its vaccine appears 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease in a large, ongoing study.

The companies said that protection plus a good safety record means the vaccine should qualify for emergency use authorization, something the Food and Drug Administration can grant before the final testing is fully complete. In addition to the FDA submission, they have already started "rolling" applications in Europe and the U.K. and intend to submit similar information soon.

With the coronavirus surging around the U.S. and the world, the pressure is on for regulators to make a speedy decision.

"Help is on the way," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert said on the eve of Pfizer's announcement, adding that it's too early to abandon masks and other protective measures. "We need to actually double down on the public health measures as we're waiting for that help to come."

Meanwhile, the surging coronavirus is taking an increasingly dire toll across the U.S. just as a vaccine appears close at hand, with the country now averaging over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths per day — the highest level since the calamitous spring in and around New York City.

The overall U.S. death toll has reached about 254,000, by far the most in the world. Confirmed infections have eclipsed more than 11.8 million, after the biggest one-day gain on record Thursday — almost 188,000. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 hit another all-time high at more than 80,000.

With health experts deeply afraid Thanksgiving travel and holiday gatherings next week will fuel the spread of the virus, many states and cities are imposing near-lockdowns or other restrictions. California ordered a 10 p.m.-to 5-a.m. curfew starting Saturday, covering 94% of the state’s 40 million residents.

The Texas border county of El Paso, where more than 300 people have died from COVID-19 since October, is advertising jobs for morgue workers capable of lifting bodies weighing 175 pounds more. Officials are offering more than $27 an hour for work described as not only physically arduous but “emotionally taxing as well.”

The county had already begun paying jail inmates $2 an hour to help move corpses and has ordered at least 10 refrigerated trucks as morgues run out of room.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are at their highest level since late May, when the Northeast was emerging from the first wave of the crisis. They peaked at about 2,200 a day in late April, when New York City was the epicenter and bodies were being loaded onto refrigerated trucks by forklift.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out another shutdown and singled out El Paso county leaders for not enforcing restrictions already in place. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, likened the county's chief administrator to a “tyrant” after Paxton won an appeals court ruling blocking local leaders from shutting down gyms and other nonessential businesses.

Friday's emergency use filing sets off a chain of events as the FDA and its independent advisers debate if the shots are ready. If so, still another government group will have to decide how the initial limited supplies are rationed out to anxiously awaiting Americans.

How much vaccine is available and when is a moving target, but initial supplies will be scarce and rationed. Globally, Pfizer has estimated it could have 50 million doses available by year's end.

About 25 million may become available for U.S. use in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine this week. Recipients will need two doses, three weeks apart. The U.S. government has a contract to buy millions of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, as well as other candidates than pan out, and has promised shots will be free.

Not far behind is competitor Moderna Inc.'s COVID-19 vaccine. Its early data suggests the shots are as strong as Pfizer's, and that company expects to also seek emergency authorization within weeks.

The public's first chance to see how strong the evidence really is will come Dec. 10 at a public meeting of the FDA's scientific advisers.

So far, what's known is based only on statements from Pfizer and BioNTech. Of 170 infections detected to date, only eight were among people who'd received the actual vaccine and the rest had gotten a dummy shot. On the safety side, the companies cite results from 38,000 study participants who've been tracked for two months after their second dose. That's a milestone FDA set because historically, vaccine side effects don't crop up later than that.

"We'll drill down on these data," said FDA adviser Dr. Paul Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

breaking top story
Illinois reports another 126 COVID-19 deaths as Tier 3 mitigations take effect
  • Updated

SPRINGFIELD — The state reported another 126 COVID-19-related deaths Friday as Tier 3 mitigations took effect statewide and virus-related hospitalizations continued to increase.

That brought the death toll since the pandemic began to 11,304 out of 634,395 confirmed or probable cases. The newly reported deaths occurred in people ranging from their 20s to older than 100.

“Today is the first formal day of our temporary Tier 3 mitigations,” Pritzker said during a news conference Friday in Chicago. “Remember, the core philosophy here is that if we all stay home as much as possible, if we all avoid the trips outside the house that we don't need to take right now, we can fight this recent surge and turn things around for our health care workers and hospital systems who are facing an increasingly dangerous situation across the state. And we can potentially pull back on these mitigations for everyone before the December holidays.”

The new mitigations strictly limit capacity at retail stores and other Illinois businesses and require casinos and video gambling terminals to close, among other economic restrictions.

The mitigations took effect as the state reported 13,012 new confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 among a single-day record 116,024 test results reported. That made for a one-day positivity rate of 11.2%, which drove the seven-day rolling average case positivity rate to 11.5%, a decrease of a half point from the day prior.

At Pritzker’s briefing Friday, a Bloomington family shared the story of their daughter, Danielle Kater, who died from COVID-19 complications at 30 years of age.

Kater’s husband, Tim, said his wife of six years first lost her sense of smell on a Tuesday, her test came back positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, and by the weekend she was having minor difficulties breathing.

“But nothing that we were worried or concerned about, we just thought it was part of being sick and that we just needed to get through it,” he said.

But they purchased a pulse oximeter, which by Monday revealed low blood oxygen levels, so they went to the hospital. There, she was put on a BiPAP machine to aid in breathing. It helped, and Danielle began texting family from the hospital, telling them of improvement in her oxygen levels, Tim said.

“And later that night her oxygen levels dropped. They put her on a ventilator, which then, it kept the oxygen from going down further, but it never came back up,” he said.

By that Tuesday, Nov. 3, she had died.

“So you can only understand the devastation that our family has had through this,” Danielle’s mother, Tina Rubin, said in a virtual appearance at the news conference. “We lost our only daughter. Tim lost the love of his life. But through this, we want something positive. No, these aren’t just numbers, they're not just statistics. These are real people with real lives and real future that have been stolen by this virus.”

Moving forward, she said, “we want to take all this negative energy that we have right now and try to turn it into something positive.” She urged listeners to follow social distancing and quarantine guidance and stay home when possible.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike noted it has been 10 months since the first COVID-19 case was identified in Illinois and the first known person-to-person transmission was logged in the state. Since that point, she said, health care professionals have worked around the clock to learn about the virus and share information with the public.

She said people came together to limit the spread of the virus in the first wave of April and May.

“When states across the United States and even some countries around the world began the stay-at-home orders, we all wanted to do whatever we could to prevent additional sickness and deaths,” she said. “And it worked. And the number of cases decreased, as well as the number of hospitalizations, as well as the number of deaths. They decreased dramatically.”

But now, Ezike said, amid a surging second wave, that support has faded.

“Just as real as the virus is, so is the COVID fatigue that is accompanying it,” she said. “And we're all tired of this virus, and we're tired of staying home, and we're tired of denying ourselves our common pleasures. But instead of blaming the virus for these concessions that we've been asked to make, we're looking to blame one another. And so I just want to urge people to be kind.”

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, increased in all three categories from the day prior as of Thursday night. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 6,111 hospital beds in use by COVID-19 patients, marking the 26th straight day of increases. That included 1,196 COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds and 604 on ventilators.

Ezike noted Friday that the department would be changing the way it reports available hospital beds. Instead of reporting the number of actual beds in existence, IDPH will report the number of beds that have an adequate number of medical professionals to staff them.

That means that there are about 2,000 fewer hospital beds available and 430 fewer intensive care unit beds, according to the IDPH data from Thursday, as compared to the day before. That left about 25% of staffable beds and 19% of staffable ICU beds available.

Positivity rates declined in 10 of 11 regions from the day prior as of Tuesday, Nov. 17, the most recent day regional level data were available. As of Friday, 101 of the state’s 102 counties were at a warning level for COVID-19 spread, with only Union County in Southern Illinois not on the warning list.

Here are the 10 categories of new statewide COVID restrictions that went into effect Friday

Here are the 10 categories of new statewide COVID restrictions announced Tuesday

editor's pick top story
Southern Illinois hospitals increase visitor restrictions as region’s COVID-19 cases rise
  • Updated

Increasing cases of COVID-19 across Southern Illinois have prompted some local hospitals to revise their visitation policies.

Most local hospitals enacted strict no-visitor policies in March as staff prepared for a surge of COVID patients. When the numbers of patients did not increase, the hospitals reduced the restrictions. With the recent rise in cases, those same hospitals are once again restricting visitors.

All hospitals will continue to screen patients and visitors for COVID-19 and check temperatures. Visitors will be required to wear masks, observe social distancing and perform good hand hygiene.

Heartland Regional Medical Center (HRMC) implemented a revised visitor policy on Nov. 12 in response to the rise in positive COVID-19 cases in the region and following state mitigation efforts.

“Throughout the pandemic, Heartland Regional has taken exceptional measures to ensure that everyone seeking care, and each person providing that care, is safe,” Ed Cunningham, Heartland Regional CEO, said in press release. “Revising our Visitor Policy helps the public confidently visit the hospital or any of our clinics.”

No visitors will be allowed at the hospital or its associate clinics, including the intensive care unit, inpatient medical unit, emergency department, surgical unit and perioperative services, outpatient lab and imaging, and outpatient clinics.

If patients require a support person, some exceptions may be made in special circumstances, including pediatric patients and power-of-attorney or end-of-life situations. An exception may be made on a case-by-case basis when a support person is essential to ensure the emotional well-being of the patient. If possible, check with the nursing staff ahead of time if you have questions.

SSM Health in Illinois suspended visits throughout its care sites on Friday, which includes Good Samaritan and St. Mary’s hospitals, due to an increase in the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community.

No visitors are allowed except under certain circumstances, including end-of-life situations and when a visitor is essential for the patient’s emotional well-being and care. COVID-positive patients and patients under investigation for COVID are still be under a strict no visitors policy.

Obstetrics patients are allowed one person to offer support. Our clinics and emergency rooms will allow one or two parents or guardians for pediatric patients based upon the care environment.

Southern Illinois Healthcare has not implemented further restrictions at this time.

Birthing Center patients may have one dedicated support person. In addition to the support person, a certified labor doula is allowed to attend the labor, delivery and two-hour recovery that occurs in the birthing center.

Pediatric/NICU patients may have one parent or guardian at a time.

Patients with behavioral health, developmental delays or altered mental status for whom a family member or caregiver is integral to their care or safety may have one dedicated support person.

Patients in the Emergency Department may have one dedicated support person.

Inpatient adults may have two designated visitors per day, one at a time, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., and the designated persons can change day to day.

Surgery/Procedure patients may have one dedicated support person for the duration of the surgical procedure.

Patients at end-of-life may have up to four visitors at a time and can rotate with others.

Patients may receive religious services from the religious leader of their choice at any reasonable time, if it can be provided without disruption to care. Religious leaders will not count as the patient’s visitor.

Other considerations made on a case-by-case basis by the house supervisor when essential to ensure the emotional wellbeing and care of the patient.

To verify whether or not visitors are allowed at other hospitals, please check with the hospital. 

Here are the 10 categories of new statewide COVID restrictions that went into effect Friday

Here are the 10 categories of new statewide COVID restrictions announced Tuesday