It was a move to save lives as the novel coronavirus quickly spread. To make way for an influx of COVID-19 cases as well as keep crowds out of medical facilities and operating rooms, elective outpatient procedures and annual checkups were canceled. According to Timothy Nelson, an AMITA Health system director, there was an approximate 36.3 percent drop in the number of colonoscopies and an 8.5 percent drop in mammograms performed at AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital Kankakee from 2019 to 2020 due to the pandemic.
In late May, when the shutdown for those services was lifted by Gov. JB Pritzker, hospitals didn’t see a return to normal. It was concerning. Riverside Healthcare President and CEO Phil Kambic said Riverside’s hospital saw an increase as well.
Not all can be attributed to the pandemic, but Hill, who is a pathologist, saw first-hand the need for resuming regular screenings. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune using federal estimates of excess death found in Illinois nearly 111,000 people died from March 1, 2020, to Jan 2, 2021. That’s 27 percent higher than the average for 2015 through 2019, which was about 87,000 deaths for the same 44-week period.
“We were seeing an increase in [deaths on arrival] in the emergency room,” said Dr. Kalisha Hill, the chief medical officer for AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital Kankakee and AMITA Health St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet. “There were also more deaths at home,” Kambic said.
She offered an example of a patient she treated for a tumor. Before the pandemic, she explained, the tumor measured 3 centimeters. A few months later, when the patient returned after delaying due to fear of COVID-19, it had increased to 8 centimeters. Hill said the two hospitals are back up to 70 percent to 80 percent of people getting regular screenings such as physicals, colonoscopies, mammograms, prostate screenings and even help with knee or hip pains.
“We encourage people to get scheduled. By delaying care, it could be too late,” he said. “Being afraid of catching the virus is not a reason for not coming to the hospital a year later,” she said, adding medical facilities have put extensive procedures in place to protect and reassure patients that it’s safe. At Riverside Medical Center, the return of outpatient treatments is now at 85 percent to 90 percent, Kambic said.
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