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Fighting Covid looked different in 2021. It was the year of widespread vaccine distribution, a major milestone. Inside the hospital, a combination of therapies made a difference for some of the sickest patients.

And while doctors have hope for better outcomes in 2022, they say the key to success is already here.

It was one year ago when we got a look inside NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Covid ICU, where pulmonary and critical care doctors, respiratory therapists and nurses handle the heavy lifting.

At the time, about 20 beds were occupied on the unit.

Dr Christopher Winslow is Critical Care Physician and Pulmonologist.

“Our volumes are not quite as bad as they were last year,” he said. “Our numbers of positive cases are high, but the numbers of our severely ill patients thankfully have been lower. And that is attributed almost exclusively to the vaccine.”

Still, the prognosis for a patient on a ventilator remains much the same.

“The overwhelming majority of them are unvaccinated. I think once you are in the ICU and once you get on a vent that mortality has not really changed,” Winslow said. “All of our treatment protocols have not moved the needle significantly. So I think the real emphasis for everyone is to prevent that situation from occurring in the first place. And the way to do that is to be vaccinated and if you are vaccinated to get boosted.”

The count is up to 90-plus covid patients at Rush University Medical Center, that’s compared to the facility’s all-time high of 189 during the early stages of the pandemic. 

“We’re in a better place than that because we do know what works,” Dr Shivanjali Shankaran said.

There are multiple therapies – blood thinners, monoclonal antibodies, immunomodulators and steroids help patients pull through Covid. And now the hope is two new anti-viral pills will keep those at increased risk for severe disease out of the hospital. 

“All those measures help incrementally, none have been real game changers, Winslow said. “But it’s a disease of increments and everything you can do hopefully contributes to helping some people get better.”

Yet, doctors say they are often asked by patients and their families to administer unproven drugs.

“It can get very contentious,” Winslow said. “One of our physicians, actually a family offered to bribe him with cash to give him ivermectin. Of course he refused to do that.”

“It would be inappropriate for me when I know there is a medicine that does work to use something that doesn’t,” Shankara said.  

As we enter another pandemic year, the doctors have a simple message.

“It’s been a long year. It’s been a hard year and there is certainly an amount of burnout involved but I think we’re doing pretty well,” Winslow said.

“Take care of yourselves and each other,” Shankaran said. “Vaccinate not just for you but for all the people around you.”

When it comes to kids, infectious disease doctors say the numbers of positive cases are high and are predominantly in age groups not yet eligible for vaccination. Pediatric hospital admissions for COVID-19 are also high and almost exclusively in unvaccinated children. They’re calling the trend real-time evidence that vaccines are working.