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Illinois Health Care Workers Say Hospitals Will Run Out Of ICU Beds By Thanksgiving


Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is urging the state's residents to stay home and leave only for essential activities. He warned today that a mandatory stay-at-home order could come soon if the state's coronavirus numbers don't turn around.


That alarm call comes as ICU beds in Illinois fill with dozens more COVID-19 patients every day. At that rate, the state will run out of ICU beds by Thanksgiving, according to a group of Illinois health care workers. That group sent an open letter this week to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the governor, urging more action to slow the spread of the virus.

CHANG: Vineet Arora is one of the authors of that letter. I caught up with her earlier today before the governor's address, and I asked her to describe what hospitals are facing right now in her state.

VINEET ARORA: Well, right now in Illinois, we have a record number of hospitalizations, more than we've had with the surge in the spring. We have hospitals that are already running out of equipment to help patients. And so we are dangerously close to reaching capacity in some of our hospitals.

You know, one of the things people worry about is ventilators. Another thing that we often use to help patients with COVID is the same machine that we use when somebody needs heart surgery, and that's to help their lungs with oxygenation. And so that machine is currently being used up by COVID patients in one of our community hospitals such that if anybody needed heart surgery, they would not be able to get into that hospital to get it today.

CHANG: Wow. We've talked about the equipment shortages, but I want you to help us paint an even clearer picture of what is happening in Illinois. Are hospitals there already having to ration care in some cases - like, actually make choices between saving one patient versus another?

ARORA: Many hospitals already run at very high capacity. And so, you know, when you're deciding who gets an ICU bed and who doesn't get an ICU bed, you're already rationing that ICU bed to the person who's the sickest, right? And the challenge with COVID is that it overtaxes your hospitalizations, and COVID patients stay a very long time in the ICU such that you won't have those beds for other sick ICU patients when you need them. And the reason that's important is that on the day that that happens, that - to me, that's a catastrophic never event that we should never have arrived at. It's too late by then. And so we are asking for people to take action now because we want to prevent that never event scenario in a few weeks.

CHANG: So what is the backup plan at this point? Is there one?

ARORA: Well, you know, the reason we wrote the letter is because, you know, Illinois has really led in policies around mask mandates and mitigation measures, but the mitigation policies are only as good as they're followed. And so one of the things that we are trying to do is really get into the hearts and minds of people in Illinois and really everywhere - it's the whole Midwest - to say that we need the alarm bells to be rung at a really - with a forceful messaging that this is the time that we need your help to stay home, to mask up.

CHANG: Well, apart from joining you in the messaging effort, these local and state leaders, are there additional rules that you just want to see put in place, additional mandates that you want to see put in place?

ARORA: I would love greater transparency around the data around who's getting sick and where so that the public can understand what are the behaviors that are risky. I also think it's important in our group calls for the need to establish the threshold when we would restrict indoor businesses, restaurants, bars and move to a shelter in place. There's a lot of concern that that's more of a moving target. And it would be great to just have that be a fixed target so that people know in advance this is where we're headed.

CHANG: Can I just ask - you know, we are 10 months now into this pandemic - what it has been like for you as a frontline health care worker, seeing this pandemic worsen again with no signs of it turning around.

ARORA: Well, honestly, it's exhausting. You know, it's really exhausting. That's all I can say. It's demoralizing and exhausting.

CHANG: Well, I wish you and Illinois the best of luck in the next several months. Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us.

ARORA: Thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Vineet Arora is a hospitalist at the University of Chicago and one of the founders and directors of the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, an advocacy group for health care workers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.