Metro East COVID Hospitalizations Increasing Again As Delta Variant Spreads
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
St. Clair County officials continued sounding alarm bells about an uptick in COVID-19 cases in a weekly check-in with the public on Wednesday as the leaders pleaded with residents to take the vaccine to protect themselves against an emerging strain of the coronavirus that spreads faster.
Hospitalizations are increasing again after record lows in May and June, and the patient demographic has changed, according to Dr. Omer Badahman, an infectious disease physician at Memorial Hospital Belleville, who spoke during a briefing on the status of COVID-19 in the county.
Badahman said Memorial is seeing more young people with COVID-19 than it did in the first quarter of 2021, including those under 25 years old. And almost all of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated: 98%, according to the specialist.
Though still below peak levels, when as many as 194 patients could be hospitalized in the Metro East at one time, the region’s hospitalizations have nearly doubled since last week, from 28 to 53, according to numbers provided by Myla Blandford, director of the St. Clair County Health Department. The region includes St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, Clinton, Randolph, Washington and Bond counties.
Just two months ago, Memorial Hospital Belleville was celebrating a “significant milestone” in the fight against the virus. May 6 was the first time the hospital had no COVID-19 patients since March 2020.
Memorial Hospital President Mike McManus said last week that it had been an emotional moment for health care workers. “There were tears from our nursing staff about this because of what they’ve been through,” he said during the July 7 county briefing.
Now, an average of 10-15 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized each day, according to Badahman.
Both Badahman and McManus agreed that a resurgence of COVID-19 is preventable — even as the delta variant, a version of the coronavirus that is believed to be more contagious, spreads in Illinois and Missouri — because a vaccine is now widely available.
But across the Metro East, less than half of the population of over 650,000 people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
About 275,000 residents, or 42% of the region, have taken all the necessary shots, according to information published by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Wednesday. Some vaccines require two doses.
Badahman said Memorial’s unvaccinated patients fall into two groups: the misinformed and people who “lack urgency” because no one they know has been hospitalized for COVID-19 or died from the disease.
“If we get everybody vaccinated, and we do the right thing, I think we can stop this pandemic,” he said. “... There will be other strains. As long as the virus is allowed to run rampant and infect other people, we will get more, different strains. This is the nature of this virus.”
Infection rate increasing in Southwestern Illinois
The local infection rate has been steadily increasing since July 1, according to the average proportion of COVID-19 tests that are positive for the disease. That figure, known as the positivity rate, was 7.8% on July 11, the latest date information was available.
A rate of 8% or more for three consecutive days, along with a surge in hospitalizations, used to trigger state-mandated restrictions on businesses and social gatherings in an effort to bring transmission under control. But the state’s top health official told the Belleville News-Democrat on Monday that Illinois is focusing on encouraging people to get vaccinated instead of imposing restrictions.
“We’re seeing some concerning numbers in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe and so we’re really hoping that people will get vaccinated and while they’re making their appointment and getting their first shot or their second shot, they will also wear their masks in crowded settings, indoor settings, when there are a lot of people and you just don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Where residents might have been exposed to COVID
The Metro East region’s efforts to identify where people could have been exposed, known as contact tracing, show that restaurants, bars, businesses and schools were the most common places that people diagnosed with COVID-19 said they visited in either the two weeks before their symptoms started or before they tested positive for the disease, if they had no symptoms.
The “business” category includes car dealerships, banks, convenience stores, gas stations, hardware stores, clothing stores and other retail locations.
The contact tracing statistics are based on information submitted by local health departments to the Illinois Department of Public Health from June 9 to July 9. Contact tracers had interviewed about 79% of the infected people in the region from August 1, 2020, to July 3, 2021, according to the state.
Where to find the COVID vaccine in the Metro East
Local health departments and pharmacies continue to offer the shot.
Here are some upcoming opportunities:
- July 19-24: St. Clair County Health Department clinic, 330 West Main Street in Belleville. Visit health.co.st-clair.il.us to make an appointment.
- July 21: Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Student Fitness Center, 35 Circle Drive in Edwardsville. Visit madisonchd.org to make an appointment.
- July 22: Gateway Convention Center, 1 Gateway Drive in Collinsville at the west entrance. Visit madisonchd.org to make an appointment.
- July 29: Madison County Health Department, 101 E. Edwardsville Road in Wood River. Visit madisonchd.org to make an appointment.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.