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Central Illinois children's hospitals urge precautions as need for care goes up

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The only two children's hospitals in downstate Illinois are among those in a national group requesting aid from the Biden administration in the midst of a rising caseload of pediatric patients. 

OSF HealthCare Children's Hospital of Illinois in Peoria and HSHS St. John's Children's Hospital in Springfield are both part of the Children's Hospital Association, whose CEO Mark Wietecha sent a letter to the White House last week asking for "immediate help" in addressing a "growing, national pediatric hospital capacity crisis."  

"Children's hospitals are reporting high demand and staffing challenges," Wietecha wrote. "With pediatric volumes at or near capacity and the upcoming school season expected to increase demand, there may not be sufficient bed capacity or expert staff to care for children and families in need."

Recently-released data from the American Association of Pediatrics reported nearly 17% of COVID cases confirmed in Illinois since last year have been among those ages 0 to 17, a percentage that represents 252,596 cases in total.

Just 24 of all COVID-related deaths in the state have been among that same age group. Hospitalization data by age was not provided in the report or available via the Illinois Department of Public Health's data portal.  

Since last year, OSF Children's Hospital has seen 120 pediatric COVID patients and is now averaging between zero and three such patients each day, president Mike Wells said. 

Similar data was not immediately available from HSHS St. John's Children's Hospital. 

But while neither hospital is overwhelmed by pediatric COVID cases, beds are filling quickly for other reasons. 

"Our overall census at OSF Children's Hospital is up," Wells said, adding that's "largely driven by other infectious illness, such as RSV, since children are having more contact with each other; and trauma cases since children have resumed more typical activities like sports, traveling, etc." 

HSHS St. John's Children's Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Douglas Carlson credited area vaccination rates for lack of pediatric COVID patients, but noted the beds in Springfield are filling up regardless. 

Dr. Douglas Carlson, chief medical officer at HSHS St. John's Children's Hospital

Carlson

"We in Central Illinois (hospitals) haven't been as affected as areas close to us that have low vaccination rates," he said during a press conference Thursday. "But our hospital is nearing capacity with RSV cases, other infections and injuries. We can't afford to have a COVID surge also on top of that." 

Carlson's concerns echo those of the Children's Hospital Association, which said in the letter that "the (fall/winter virus) cycle began unexpectedly this summer, months ahead of the usual schedule, with a severe wave of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) putting many children in the hospital, with infection rates and severity continuing to rise as children reengage after the extended isolation of the past year." 

While CHA urged the federal government to "provide critical support for pediatric hospital capacity," Carlson called on community members to get vaccinated, thereby lowering the chances of spreading COVID from person-to-person. 

Watch now: McLean County starts month with 82 new COVID cases

Both OSF Children's Hospital and HSHS St. John's have relationships with other pediatric hospitals and contingency plans in place should bed capacity max out.

Still, health care workers would prefer it not get to that point. 

"As the only full-service children's hospital outside of Chicago, we have a responsibility to keep our capacity open to avoid families having to travel far from home for care," Wells told The Pantagraph. 

Added Carlson: "Our worry is that this will get harder. Even though we can get great care out of the area, we want children and families to get great care where they live. We're not 'at capacity' in the broad sense... but we're worried that we might be if we don't continue to take precautions." 


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