CHICAGO — As Illinois public health officials continue to examine what's making some people who vape so sick, they say it's important to also learn about those who haven't succumbed to the mystery respiratory illness that's hospitalized hundreds across the country and killed eight.
The Illinois Department of Public Health launched a survey targeting adults who regularly use e-cigarettes, or vape, but who have not been ill. The comprehensive online survey asks dozens of questions about vaping habits — products used, substances contained, where and how they were obtained, how often they're used and when users started, among other details.
"If you're looking at potentially a problem, you want to understand how the people who are sick differ from those who are not sick and try to figure out, is there something the people affected used, something they did ... that made it more likely they fell ill," said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. "It's not enough just to look at the people affected; you also want to look at the people not affected. We're trying to create the control group, if you will."
State and federal health officials have been struggling to identify which vaping product or products are responsible for the spate of hospitalizations of patients who report a history of vaping. Earlier this summer, reports emerged of mostly young people arriving at hospitals, struggling to breathe. Symptoms also include chest pain, fever and gastrointestinal issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 530 people have been hospitalized across the country as of earlier this week, some requiring ventilators. Eight have died, including one in Illinois.
In Illinois, there were 69 confirmed cases as of Friday, according to IDPH. Gathering information from those patients is difficult, Ezike said. Some are too sick to talk, whereas others are hesitant to reveal their vaping habits.
"People are not trusting they should be sharing everything they've been doing," she said.
Many of the patients throughout the country, according to the CDC, have revealed they not only used legally obtained e-cigarettes containing nicotine, but also vaped illegal products with THC, the compound in marijuana that creates a high. It's still unclear what's responsible.
But as news of the vaping illness swirled, Ezike said patients have been more open when the department has gone back to them for repeat interviews.
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"I think as the investigation continues, people understand that there has been a lot of illness and we're really just trying to get at answers for the public benefit in order to identify if there's a dangerous product," she said. "As they recover and they see what happening around them, they can see a role in helping."
Officials said they hope e-cigarette users will be forthcoming in the anonymous survey, which is why it's anonymous. While data shows vaping is popular among teens, Ezike said minors cannot be included in the survey because they need parental consent, which would make it no longer anonymous.
The survey is the latest tool in an investigation that's atypical for the department, Ezike said, adding that more common investigations within the department involve food poisoning outbreaks.
"It's novel in that it's the first investigation of its kind," she said. "We have not had a vaping-related incident for which we were investigating."
It's also a fast-moving investigation involving federal officials from the CDC as well as the Food and Drug Administration, which is testing samples and recently announced it has also launched a criminal probe to examine supply chains and other details of any products responsible.
"It's been evolving in real time," Ezike said. "We've had to be very nimble."
The department is using social media channels to direct people to the survey, which they hope will yield enough data to draw conclusions. Less than a day after it was announced, officials said there were at least 80 hits on the survey, but it's unclear if those resulted in as many completed surveys.
"When we get a critical amount of responses, then we hope to close it out," Ezike said. "But we may keep it on (the department's website) for a while because this is important information going forward."