Knock on wood, I’ve been able to avoid medical facilities lately, unlike my friend who found himself in an urgent care situation last week because of a nagging back issue.
But that ailment quickly took a back seat, he told me later, as he found himself sitting in an urgent care facility in Batavia packed with sneezing and coughing and hacking patients that made him realize “I could actually leave here with something worse than what I came in with.”
Some were wearing masks. Some were not.
After unsuccessfully scrounging through his own pockets for a face covering, my friend was relieved when the first thing the nurse asked after he finally got called to an exam room was whether he wanted a mask.
He eagerly replied in the affirmative. And there he was, transported back in time, or at least to a year ago when health care facilities required such protections.
Because the facility was so crowded, the nurse sent him back to the waiting area after triage, where he had another 45-minute wait before the doctor could see him.
Not that he was getting impatient. There were people far worse off, insisted my friend, including a middle school-aged girl “who looked absolutely miserable” and a patient in the next room experiencing shortness of breath.
All told, his trip to urgent care took over three hours, long enough, he told me, to read five chapters in the book he brought and to watch at least five house rehabs on the HGTV channel in the waiting room.
Hopefully, not long enough for him to catch one of the viruses that now seem to be trying their best to interrupt our lives yet again.
But my friend’s recent experience in a local urgent care certainly piqued my curiosity. Four years out from the start of the COVID-19 invasion, just how bad is it out there now that – like my friend – most of us have lost or tossed all those masks that once filled our pockets, purses and the cubbies of our cars?
Calls to local hospitals indicate now might be a good time to bring them back out.
Kane County’s numbers for COVID-19, the flu and RSV are considered high, according to local health officials. And because those statistics moved the risk factor “into the yellow zone,” said Dr. Brett Cassidy, chief medical officer for Ascension Mercy, the Aurora hospital began mandating masks be worn again in all critical areas of the hospital, including emergency rooms, ICU and labor and delivery.
In the last two weeks, he noted, there have been 45 patients in Mercy’s ER who tested positive for the flu, with three requiring ICU admission; 85 who tested positive for COVID, five of which required ICU admission; and four adults hospitalized with RSV, two of which were admitted to the ICU.
A week ago, the significantly elevated levels of influenza-like illnesses in our communities also led Rush Copley in Aurora to require staff, patients and visitors to wear masks in certain areas of the hospital, including inpatient rooms, exam rooms, clinical waiting areas and when registering.
Rush Copley has seen a 70% increase in the last month of influenza and RSV cases in its Emergency Department, according to spokesperson Courtney Satlak. The majority of those being admitted to the hospital are elderly or have multiple other health issues, she said, adding that COVID cases being seen in the ER and also admitted have moderately increased over that same time.
The majority of COVID-19 patients, however, “are being treated at urgent care centers and are not getting admitted which is a significant difference from years past,” pointed out Satlak.
While Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva has not called for a mask mandate, they are required in clinical areas for patients who have symptoms of a respiratory virus and in a patient’s room if requested or if staff requires it, said spokesman Christopher King.
Likewise, Edward-Elmhurst Health is not requiring masks for everyone who comes into its facilities but strongly encourages their use.
Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, infectious disease specialist, told me that from Nov. 1 to Dec. 16, Edward Hospital in Naperville was averaging 22 COVID-19 admissions per week, a number that went up to 44 the last week of December.
According to statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health, for the week ending Dec. 23, 7% of hospital ER visits in Kane County were for influenza-like illness reasons, nearly doubling the 3.75% baseline.
“We don’t want to mandate (masks),” said Pinsky. “But many people are there for respiratory symptoms. They could have COVID or influenza.”
And sitting in a waiting room without a mask is doing little to protect yourself or others from potential exposure, he noted.
Not surprisingly, asking people to mask up again is not always an easy sell.
“I would say it’s 50/50,” said Cassidy, referring to pushback from patients, visitors and even staff.
Both medical experts warn that, while many people might now consider COVID-19 just another flu, it can be as severe, even fatal, as ever, especially for the elderly or those with medical issues.
That is yet another reason, they insist, to get vaccinated.
“We know updated vaccines provide very good protection against circulating strains,” said Pinsky, adding that last year’s vaccine resulted in a 60% to 80% reduction in ER visits from COVID-19.
According to Ascension Mercy officials, 90% of all recent cases are for the “A” strain flu, indicating we are far from the late season “B” strain transition.
Which means we will likely be seeing high numbers until early spring, say the experts.
My friend, who often visits and cares for an aging parent, told me he is once more carrying masks in his pockets and car. And after turning this column in, I am heading to the junk drawer in my bedroom, where a couple of unused ones have been buried for well over a year now.
“This is a good time to get it back out,” said Pinsky, “especially if you have a compromised immune system or are living with someone who has an underlying medical condition.”