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‘This Is Our Surge’: Hospital System Data Suggests Coronavirus Is Taking Off In Central Illinois

Memorial Health System's five central Illinois hospitals are seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients and a rising test positivity rate. MHS began publishing daily updates on a public COVID-19 dashboard released this week.

DECATUR – Since March, 700 people in central Illinois have been hospitalized for COVID-19 across Memorial Health System’s five hospitals. Of those patients, 124 have died.

In addition to the steady rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations since mid-July, hospital leaders are concerned that the seven-day COVID-19 test positivity rate across Memorial’s hospitals has risen to 26.8% — after hovering in the single digits for months, according to a public COVID-19 dashboard released by the hospital system this week.

The dashboard shows how many people are currently hospitalized at Memorial Health System hospitals located in Springfield, Decatur, Taylorville, Lincoln and Jacksonville.

“Our local health departments, with the excellent information that they have, they’re reporting on a county-by-county basis,” says Dr. Ted Clark is Chief Medical Officer at Decatur Memorial Hospital. 

“We’re reporting our 40-county service area, the patients that come in from all throughout central Illinois to the Memorial Health System. And we think that gives an accurate regional picture with what’s happening with the local epidemic.”

Clark says he hopes the information will help the public understand the severity of the situation throughout the region — and motivate people to take steps to reduce the spread, including mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding even small gatherings with people outside of one’s household.

Early on in the pandemic, the statewide stay-at-home order helped flatten the curve, and cases slowed to a trickle in much of central Illinois, Clark says. But once the economy started to reopen more, cases have been on the rise.

“What we’ve experienced over the last several weeks — and going forward, probably for the next two to maybe three months — this is our surge,” Clark says. “This is our battle against COVID-19. This is our regional epidemic.”

As cases and hospitalizations rise, central Illinois hospitals are now dealing with hard situations that had previously been mostly limited to urban and coastal cities, 

“We’re pushing our team harder than we ever have,” Clark says. “Our nurses, our technicians, our physicians are picking up extra shifts. We’re doing all these things to ensure that we are able to take care of these patients.”

As of Nov. 12, 2020, 148 patients are hospitalized for COVID-19 across Memorial Health System’s five central Illinois hospitals. Since March 1, 124 patients have died. Screenshot from Memorial Health System COVID-19 Dashboard.

While there are plenty of metaphors out there for the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark says he thinks about it being like a marathon.

“We’ve been running the COVID marathon for about 18 miles now. And now we’re being asked to sprint for the last eight,” Clark says. “Everybody’s tired. We’ve been doing this for a while… and now we’re being asked to double down on those precautions.”

But it has never been more important for central Illinois residents to heed the advice, because we now know what works to reduce the spread of the virus.

“I hate to say this, because I know how many people are struggling economically — unemployment and small businesses — but if ever there were a time to not do indoor dining, to not gather in larger groups, to decrease these types of exposures, now’s the time,” Clark says. 

“Because if you get in a room with 25 people, you can be pretty sure that somebody in there is COVID-positive. And that’s just what we can tell from the data.”

Illinois Newsroom reached out to other central Illinois hospital systems to ask whether they plan to release hospital-level data in a public database.

Spokespeople for OSF HealthCare and Carle Foundation Hospital said via email that their organizations work with local health departments to report positive COVID-19 cases and are not self-reporting the information in a public dashboard.

“Carle continues to support public health officials efforts to transparently share information about the pandemic with the public. We need our community to be informed about the severity of the situation as we are seeing an increasing number of hospitalized patients in our hospitals with COVID-19,” said Jamie Mullin, Carle public relations manager, in an email.

“The sustained increase in cases is concerning and each of us needs to do our part now to slow the spread of the virus.”

If you have a question you would like Illinois Newsroom to address regarding COVID-19,submit it here. Christine Herman is a reporter with Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter:@CTHerman

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Christine Herman

Christine Herman is a Ph.D. chemist turned audio journalist who covers health for the Illinois Newsroom. Her reporting for Illinois Public Media/WILL has received awards from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association, the Public Media Journalists Association and has reached both regional and national audiences through WILL's health reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Christine started at WILL in 2015.

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