CHAMPAIGN – Champaign County is experiencing one of its most intense COVID waves yet. Local hospitals are filling up and at least eight county residents have died in the last two weeks due to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the new and highly infectious omicron variant is taking hold in the United States. While it hasn’t been officially detected in the county yet, health officials believe it’s already here.
“Even if we do not take the omicron into consideration, we are already in a big wave,” says Awais Vaid, deputy administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD).
Hear a conversation with CUPHD’s Awais Vaid below.
Most people who are hospitalized and dying due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Vaid says.
“I was hoping that with the vaccinations… we would be in a much better position this holiday season than we were last year,” he says. “But that has not been the case.”
According to Carle’s Facebook page, as of Dec. 13, more than 82% of their COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated and 87% of those in the ICU are unvaccinated. Carle’s treating more COVID-19 patients now than they have in the last year.
“Carle is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations that is reaching levels we have not experienced since last year and is once again threatening access to healthcare across our state and region,” said a Carle representative in an email. “The pandemic continues to place a strain on our operations and our team members are feeling that burden.”
CUPHD’s Vaid says a big difference between this year and last is that healthcare professionals are exhausted and in short supply. He says that could prevent hospitals from being able to set up surge care facilities.
“They have the capacity, they have the space to open up a surge (facility),” he says. “But there’s no staffing.”
Carle assures they have the proper “surge planning protocols in place and ready to deploy as needed.”
The healthcare provider shortage is also impacting non-COVID patients who are forced to put off elective surgeries due to a rationing of resources.
“Care in our hospitals is safe, but our ability to provide it is challenged because of the resources, including hospital beds, that COVID-19 demands,” a Carle spokesperson said.
More than 60% of Champaign County’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. But only about 40% of those who are eligible for the booster dose have received it. Plus, Vaid says, there are still tens of thousands of county residents who are unvaccinated.
“We are paying the price for people not getting vaccinated,” Vaid says.
The COVID surge also comes right before the busiest travel season of the year. For vaccinated travelers (including a booster dose), Vaid recommends getting tested before leaving and upon returning.
“A little bit of inconvenience on your part can be so much safer for you and for the families you’re meeting,” he says.
The Champaign-Urbana community has plenty of testing options, he says, including three saliva-based test sites (here, here and here) and one nasal test site (at Marketplace Mall). He says results at all four sites are fairly quick to turnaround results and none cost money or require proof of insurance.
Pharmacies across the county also sell rapid tests, but they’ve been hard to find due to a supply shortage. Vaid says the federal government is working to get more rapid tests on store shelves over the next few weeks, but that regular PCR testing is a good alternative in the meantime.
Dana is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @DanaHCronin