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Every morning for the past year, there’s an email that pops into my inbox from Edward-Elmhurst Health that arrives with the same predictability as the rising sun.
And every morning, no matter how many messages hit my computer, that email which contains the hospital’s daily COVID-19 numbers is the first one I go to and the only one that religiously gets my attention.
More than a year later, it continues to be my barometer — a quick and simple way to determine how we as a Fox Valley community are faring on any given day during a global pandemic.
The numbers tell the story. And perhaps no one knows that local story better than Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville.
I’m not a numbers person – if you aren’t either, feel free to skip the next few graphs – but here’s a quick take on those stats that can’t help but also reflect the myriad emotions we’ve been through, from fear to concern to alarm and finally, hopefully, to reassurance.
In the beginning, the number of COVID-19 patients at Edward Hospital that last week in March 2020 jumped from 12 to 31 in just five days. And those stats continued to climb, hitting 60 within 16 days, before gradually backing down into the teens and single digits through the last half of June and into October.
Then, in mid-October, the daily census suddenly began to rise into the 20s and 30s. Before the month was over, Edward had 51 patients in the hospital with COVID-19, and hit a high of 95 on Nov. 13, with 86 in the hospital just a few days before Christmas.
The new year showed signs of a slowdown, with numbers in the 30s by the end of January. Then, as the vaccines became available, they declined even more, hovering in the teens and even a few single digit days by the end of March. And although there was a small spike through April and May, the numbers are back down again, with eight COVID-19 patients at Edward Hospital on Thursday.
While the daily numbers are revealing, noted Pinsky, they give only a partial glimpse of the story, as they do not reflect weekly admissions or take into account lengths of hospital stays.
But in looking back at this data and more, it points to three distinct waves of the virus, he said. In the first spring-to-October surge, there were 619 patients discharged at Edward, with 46 deaths. In the second wave, 1,224 were discharged with 91 deaths. And in the third wave, 307 were discharged with 15 deaths.
The October surge, he told me, was especially alarming because the virus not only crept back quickly, there were more admissions from the community in general than from nursing homes. That peak second-wave week of Nov. 14, for example, had 115 admissions, but only six from nursing homes.
“I was very concerned,” Pinksy said, recalling Halloween as “one of our busiest days.”
Even then, there were positives that could be taken away from those hectic times. Lengths of stays were lowering, for one thing, which Pinsky credited to “improved treatments from the first to second wave,” and the fact that the larger numbers of younger people being hospitalized recovered more quickly.
The median age in the first waves was 70, with about 15% coming from nursing homes (95 in the first surge; 195 in the second, he said.) In the third wave, the median age was 50, and there were no patients from nursing homes.
The reason this third wave was so blunted is obvious, yet still needs to be pointed out: Contrary to what you may be hearing or reading, the vaccines are “extremely effective” with “breakthrough cases” not only rare, said Pinsky, but far less serious.
At Edward, for example, there’s been just one or two vaccinated patients who had to be admitted to the hospital because of the virus, “but none were severely ill.”
Which means those on the pandemic’s front line can finally take a deep breath.
Pinsky pauses for a long moment before admitting “yes,” when I asked if he feels like he’s been put through the wringer.
“But it’s not just me,” he continued. “This has strained hospitals, health care, all who have worked hard to keep up with this as guidelines continued to change.”
Looking back over the year, he says the fear so many in health care faced at the front end of the pandemic was somewhat alleviated as “we learned to trust our PPE.”
“The irony is that a lot of us did get COVID,” he noted, “not from the hospitals but from the community.”
And it wasn’t until those first vaccine shots started going into arms that he and his colleagues began to feel “such a sense of relief.”
But until we hit higher vaccine rates, that optimism is sprinkled with caution. Pinsky is not only concerned about spikes in communities where kids and adults are not vaccinated, he’s worried about unvaccinated travelers going into communities with low inoculation rates, and about children who will “take on the burden” of the unvaccinated.
Reflecting back on the year, Pinsky admitted to getting a little teary-eyed as we talked.
For one thing, he’s understandably proud of being part of a health care system – from nurses to administration to pharmacy to purchasing agents – that “always put care of the patients” first.
But it’s also been a long hard year for any and all health care professionals who have had to show up at the office every day when most of us got to work from the safety of our homes. And, as head of a hospital’s infection control department during a pandemic, Pinsky has certainly had to be front and center at all times and ready to pivot on a dime as an unknown and deadly virus gradually revealed itself to the world.
Which meant more pressure, longer hours and certainly a level of stress, Pinsky admitted, that could not be sustained.
“But we knew it would not go on forever,” he added.
Which brings us back to some good news that won’t be included in any daily census report: You know those negative pressure rooms we’ve all heard about that had to be created for COVID-19 patients? They are now being turned back into regular hospital rooms.
“This is a happy ending,” said Pinsky, delivering that last word with a comforting level of confidence.
Because so many are now vaccinated, he insisted, “even if we see surges in the future, they will not be as bad.”