Will County hospitals increase precautions as flu, respiratory illness cases rise


Will County — An increase in respiratory infections across the state of Illinois has led Will County hospitals to take extra precautions, once again implementing mask mandates for some staff and patients.

Winter always has been cold and flu season, but hospitals in recent years have more to be concerned about than influenza. COVID-19 and RSV, both of which can have similar symptoms to the flu and affect the respiratory system, now have joined the mix, and the number of cases of all three have been increasing across the U.S. since the fall.

According to an Illinois Department of Public Health announcement from Jan. 5, Illinois’ rate of respiratory infections has risen from moderate to high in recent weeks.

Despite 18 Illinois counties registering at high levels of COVID-19, Will County has remained mostly stable in its COVID-19 numbers at a moderate level of 11 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although flu numbers are on the rise for the area.
Despite the concerns of increasing hospitalizations, Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox and Ascension Saint Joseph-Joliet both reported that they have not been negatively affected by respiratory infection cases.

“Across all our hospitals there’s been an increase in infections since [the] fall, but it is not an overwhelming percent of the patient population,” said Dr. Kalisha Hill, regional chief medical officer for Ascension Saint Joseph-Joliet and Ascension Saint Mary-Kankakee. “We’re at a yellow level for COVID infections, which has stayed fairly consistent since early December.”

Hill said that as of Jan. 5, Saint Joseph-Joliet had 25 patients being treated for COVID-19, 12 flu patients and six RSV patients, all of whom were being kept in an isolation wing to avoid further spreading of the viruses. These patients represented about 15% of the hospital’s current population.

When asked if Ascension was concerned about a post-holidays increase in infections and its potential effect on the Joliet facility’s ongoing nursing shortage, Hill said the hospital was not concerned.

“We are prepared for any shortages in staffing across the board,” she said. “So far, we have not had any issues.”
In order to prevent staff from becoming sick or spreading infections among vulnerable patients, Ascension implemented increased masking protocols in December for both Joliet and Kankakee.

Universal masking is required in all close-contact units of the hospital, including behavioral health, oncology, labor and delivery, pediatrics, rehabilitation, and the emergency room and intensive care units.

If staff or volunteers experience any symptoms of illness, they are asked to stay home.
As of Jan. 8, Silver Cross is taking an even firmer stance on masking. After an uptick in COVID-19 infections at the hospital, it implemented a policy requiring all visitors and staff to wear a mask at all times while in patients’ rooms.

“If you come to the hospital and you do not have a mask, we will provide one for you,” Silver Cross Director of Marketing and Communication Debra Robinson said. “Respiratory virus season is in full swing within the community and here at Silver Cross. In fact, earlier this week, there were 40 COVID-positive patients alone, and we expect that number may continue to grow over the next week from viruses spread at holiday gatherings.

“We thank our community for their cooperation and support as we work to keep everyone at Silver Cross safe and healthy.”

Although numbers have increased since the fall, Hill said she believes the relatively low number of hospitalizations in Will County is a testament to residents heeding IDPH and CDC guidance.

“We have not had a massive uptick since the holidays because I think people are more conscious about spreading germs since the pandemic,” Hill said. “Our communities have been well educated about isolating and identifying symptoms.”
“I encourage all Illinoisians, and especially those most vulnerable to serious illness, to stay informed about respiratory illnesses in their area and use all the tools available to keep themselves and their loved ones safe,” IDPH Director Dr. Sameer Vohra said in the department’s most recent statement. “These tools include washing your hands, covering your coughs and sneezes, improving indoor air ventilation and wearing a mask in crowded areas.

“And it is not too late to get vaccinated for all the shots which you are eligible.”

The IDPH advised people with symptoms of respiratory illnesses including coughing, sneezing, a sore throat, a runny nose and a fever to stay home and away from others, and to wear a mask when seeking medical care, which Hill noted one should do if breathing becomes too difficult or symptoms do not improve with time.