SIH: Fear Omicron patients will fill hospitals once again

As health care professionals throughout the region await the arrival of the Omicron variant, doctors at Southern Illinois Healthcare say they have two advantages that could make this next COVID-19 round easier for hospitals to handle.

One, like medical professionals worldwide, they understand more about treating COVID than they did a year ago. And two, COVID-positive people who get an antibody infusion early in their sickness generally have less need of hospitalization.

The Food and Drug Administration in November approved antibody infusion for the general public. SIH, whose facilities are currently the only deep southern Illinois ones offering antibody infusion, has been doing a "huge" number each day, said Dr. Joshua Miksanek, an emergency room physician and medical director of the Herrin Hospital emergency department.

SIH set a record with 90 antibody infusions the week ending Dec. 11 and did another 89 the week ending Dec. 18, according to Jennifer Harre, vice president and chief nursing officer of SIH. The antibody doses are shipped here by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

SIH hospitals in Herrin and Harrisburg are the SIH infusion sites, and each infusion takes a couple of hours.

In order to get antibodies from SIH, patients must be at least 18 and be given the infusion within 10 days of the onset of symptoms. Patients must have a doctor's referral when they make the appointment.

"It's been a game changer, keeping people from becoming more seriously ill, which in turn helps keep down hospitalizations," said Rosslind Rice, SIH communications coordinator.

Patients do not have to belong to the SIH system to an get antibody infusion.

"We're getting referrals from all over the region, including the VA medical system," she added.

Harre said much more is known about treating COVID today.

"During the initial pandemic so much was unknown," she said Monday. Now, there's more information."

One thing they know, she added, is that COVID-19 is here to stay.

"What we need to be thinking about is where do we go from here?" Harre said. "What are the right treatment plans? What is the right thing with visitation - how do we do it in a safe manner instead of just shutting everything down?"

Harre said she believes at SIH, the right structure and the right decision-makers are in place.

Despite those advantages, COVID continues to be a tremendous hardship on hospitals, Harre and Miksanek said.

"Our health care workers are tired, they are really tired," Harre said.

"Two years ago we were terrified but we had big plans - we were going to save lives," Miksanek added. "It's rewarding to save a life and help someone."

Now, despite saving many lives, persistently low vaccination numbers mean they've also seen a lot of sadness.

Moreover, in this politically divisive climate, there is less general support for medical professionals over COVID-19, Miksanek said.

"People were bringing us cookies," he said. "Now it's not unusual for someone to come in and be mad at me for saying COVID is a real thing."

A nursing shortage exists nationwide, even though SIH and other local hospitals have buffeted that somewhat by being given temporary nurses at no charge, from a nursing service used by IDPH.

Miksanek said the general public should not be "panicking" over Omicron. Early indications are that while it is the fastest-spreading variant so far identified, it is also less virulent than its predecessors.

Hospitals, however, might panic, he added, because Omicron could fill their beds to capacity once again. And when they do, a non-COVID patient who has a serious condition might not have a readily available hospital bed.

I'm panicking because if (Omicron) is five times more infectious we have the potential of a rough run in the hospital setting," Miksanek said. "What everyone is afraid of is the person who is seriously ill with a non-COVID problem and can't get treated."

Rice added that SIH's two main COVID testing sites, in Carbondale and Marion, are getting massive crowds - in Marion the wait has been up to three hours long. Part of the problem is that people come at random times and not their appointment times, Rice added.

There is also a staffing shortage at the testing sites, but Rice said Tuesday the IDPH is sending workers to help out there, too.