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Healthcare workers ask everyone to do their part during the latest COVID-19 wave

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Malone’s Early Learning Center offered a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Friday in Carterville to encourage their staff, students and the public to get vaccinated.

Dr. Gurpreet Bambra, a pulmonologist at SIH Medical Group, and Dr. Ross Grey, a hospitalist at SIH Herrin Hospital and SIH Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, are frustrated and tired.

As a pulmonologist, Bambra sees some of the sickest COVID-19 patients — those in respiratory distress and those on ventilators in the intensive care unit.

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He described the patients he is seeing with the coronavirus, saying outcomes with the recent two waves were not good. One thing he sees regularly is patients who don't want the current treatment offered. Instead, they prefer treatments that have proven ineffective or have not been studied at all.

“It’s a sad situation. Patients don’t believe in vaccines. They do not want what we are offering. They open Pandora’s box with social media and the internet, and they want hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin or very high doses of vitamin C that are not shown to be effective,” Bambra said.

Grey’s specialty is in treating patients in the hospital. He has seen some of the same things Bambra is seeing.

“As we go through these waves, it's kind of interesting because there's a lot of the same, but every wave brings something different and new challenges,” Grey said.

Before the vaccine, everybody was unvaccinated. He believes not much has changed in our region. Most patients in the hospital are still unvaccinated, which he says is very, very sad.

Most of the vaccinated people who are hospitalized are older with several underlying medical conditions. They spend two or three days at the hospital and may need some oxygen. Then they go home.

“Occasionally, one of those patients has a bad outcome, which is really unfortunate," Grey said. 

He said unvaccinated patients are more likely to become critically ill, and they have much longer stays in the hospital. That gives the hospital issues because sick people are there for a very long time.

As the virus progressed to the delta variant, patients were younger and got sicker faster. With the omicron variant, they are still seeing young people who are not vaccinated. Of the people who are vaccinated, most have not had their booster shot or time for that booster to build immunity.

“It’s very sad that Southern Illinois as a whole has such a low vaccination rate and is not getting their vaccines like they should,” Grey said.

When people ask why they should get the vaccine when vaccinated people can still get COVID, he tells them it’s like golf. Both Grey and Tiger Woods play golf, but they do not get the same score in 18 holes.

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“The vaccines give us such a better immunity to be able to get us through this. I'm not seeing that with the unvaccinated patients,” Grey said.

Bambra said it has already been a busy year, and the numbers of cases across Southern Illinois back that up. Cases of COVID-19 in most counties are higher than they have been since the pandemic began in 2020.

Jackson and Williamson counties each had more than 1,200 new cases reported by Illinois Department of Public Health on Jan. 13.

Williamson County had 1,280 new cases. On Jan. 6, they had 844 new cases reported and 375 on Dec. 30.

Jackson County gained 1,230 new cases Jan. 13. On Jan. 6, they had 928 new cases, with 404 on Dec. 30.

Counties across the region follow suit with new cases and increased positivity rates.

Washington County has highest positivity rate of all the counties, at 30.8%, followed by Massac County at 25.1%. Randolph, Williamson, Franklin, Saline and Pulaski counties have positivity rates between 24% and 21%. Alexander, Jackson, White, Union, Hamilton and Perry counties have rates in the high teens, with Hamilton, Hardin and Pope counties falling in the low teens. Jefferson County has a positivity rate of about 10.5%. Johnson County has the lowest positivity rate of 4.19%.

On Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 207,203 new confirmed and probable cases of coronavirus in Illinois since Jan. 7. They also reported an increase of 738 deaths during the same week.

Although 7,810,499 or 61.20% of Illinois’ 12,741,080 residents are fully vaccinated, Southern Illinois counties have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

Bart Hagston, administrator of Jackson County Health Department, said the risk of COVID-19 is "tremendously very high.” 

He called it the “perfect storm” of issues. A case spike. The CDC changing its guidance on isolation and quarantine. The state taking over responsibility for contract tracing. And, access to testing has changed.

“All four issues are hurdles by themselves, but they are emerging at the same time,” Hagston said.

He urges residents to be patient, as do the doctors.

'A stressful situation'

What do the high numbers of cases and positivity rates mean for the average Southern Illinoisan?

It means that every aspect of life is affected by the coronavirus.

Lee Ecklund, owner of Malone’s Early Learning Center in Carterville, is dealing with the virus daily.

“It’s really become a stressful situation,” Ecklund said.

He has issues with staff testing positive or dealing with a family member who is positive. Both situations require them to isolate at home. If a child enters a classroom positive, the whole room has to be tested and quarantine, closing that classroom.

He said it has become a financial burden to the center, and that does not include just trying to get the children to wear their masks.

“I don’t know if there is a gold pot. We get through one variant, and it’s going to let up. Then, there’s another variant,” Ecklund said.

The center is doing all it can, and they even host vaccine clinics for staff, families and the public.

'We are overwhelmed'

SIH is urging everyone to get an appointment for testing. At its four community test sites within the last week, SIH collected 5,930 tests, an increase of 659 tests from the week prior.

SIH Lead Communications Coordinator Rosslind Rice said they can perform more tests quicker if everyone follows a few simple rules. First, join Mychart, the organization's online patient portal for medical records. After a person signs up, he or she can make an appointment for testing and quickly get their test results.

Rice stressed that the only problems with testing have resulted from people showing up without appointments, and going to the emergency room for a COVID-19 test. Appointments are easy to access, but SIH is requiring appointments for all tests.

Hagston said the switch in contact tracing is confusing. It moves responsibility for exposing others to the patients. Anyone with questions about contact tracing can call their health department for answers.

Bambra said the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. come with responsibility. While each person is free to choose whether to wear a mask or get a vaccine or booster, it is important for everyone to do those things to protect others.

Gray gave recommendations that were also mentioned by Bambra and Hagston.

“Get vaccinated and boosted if you are eligible to do so. Wear a mask in public places and avoid large gatherings until we are past this major surge in omicron cases,” he said.

He also recommends prioritizing your overall health: Eat a nutritious diet, exercise regularly and find healthy ways to manage stress.

“If you do get sick, please be patient and gracious with your medical staff – we are overwhelmed and working long hours with few days off,” Grey said.

His last recommendation is to trust your primary care physician to answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, booster or navigating the pandemic.

Do not take advice from Google, YouTube, or social media, he said. 

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