Chicago prepares for the coronavirus storm, hoping to stay above the surge

Twice every day, Daniel Yohanna, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, checks his inbox for the latest count of confirmed and suspected coronavirus patients currently being treated at the university's medical center.

When he went to bed Thursday night, the hospital had 44 “COVID-positive” patients, and 81 people who were under observation for the virus. By Friday morning, the number of confirmed patients with COVID-19 had risen to 54, with 87 others under observation.

“This is not static. I’m sure it will be higher by the end of the day,” Yohanna told Yahoo News Friday. The email updates have been coming since March 12, when Yohanna, the interim chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, began meeting three times a week with other department chairs, the dean of the university, the hospital’s president, infectious disease experts and others to discuss the hospital’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Other Chicago health care providers, like Cook County Health, have been preparing since January for a potential surge of patients due to the intensifying spread of COVID-19. Such plans have continued to evolve as the virus moves from the coasts to the rest of the country.

A COVID-19 screening tent in Chicago
A COVID-19 screening tent in Chicago. (Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 100,000, overtaking China and Italy as the new epicenter of this global pandemic. While New York is still home to the largest concentration of cases in the country, experts are warning that cities like Chicago are likely not far behind.

During a press briefing at the White House on Thursday evening, Ambassador Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House’s coronavirus task force, expressed concern about rapid increases in cases being reported in Chicago’s Cook County, as well as Wayne County in Michigan, which encompasses Detroit. On “CBS This Morning” Friday, Surgeon General Jerome Adams echoed that concern, warning that while New York will likely see its infection rate slow in the coming week, other hot spots like Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans “will have a worse week next week."

On Thursday, Illinois reported 673 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus across the state, its biggest spike to date, likely foreshadowing a surge to come. State and city officials took early measures to try to stem the spread of the virus before it got out of control. Illinois only had 93 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of March 15, when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants to close for two weeks. By the time Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order five days later, the number of cases in Illinois had climbed to 585, and five people had died.

At Milton Olive Park in Chicago.
At Milton Olive Park in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Following Thursday’s surge, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed additional social distancing measures by ordering the closure of the city’s lakefront, bike paths and other public spaces, and banning football, basketball and other contact sports.

“We can’t mess around with this one second longer,” Lightfoot said at a news conference Thursday, telling the press that the city is expecting “upwards of 40,000 hospitalizations in the coming weeks.”

“That number will break our health care system,” she warned, disclosing that she and state officials had met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the potential to convert part of McCormick Place, the massive convention center in the heart of Chicago, into a makeshift hospital. That hasn’t been necessary so far but it remains a possibility.

On Monday, Yahoo News spoke to Dr. Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer at Cook County Health and Hospitals System. She said a unit for confirmed and suspected coronavirus patients had been created and was in use at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital, and that a second unit had been designated in case of overflow. Stroger, a public hospital, is home to one of the country’s busiest emergency rooms and trauma units.

Among the changes made to hospital procedures has been the closure of several entrances to the medical center and mandatory masks for every new patient. Like other hospitals around the country, Cook County Health is currently not allowing visitors into its facilities except for certain exceptions such as cases involving serious trauma or a critically ill patient.

Fegan said that hospital administrators have also been in conversations with city officials about using space in empty hotel rooms and a vacant hospital for homeless patients who require quarantine but don’t need critical-care hospital beds.

She also noted that the projected dramatic increase in cases over the next week was “very anxiety-provoking for everyone,” but that her hospital was well supplied with ventilators and personal protective equipment, which have been in short supply in other cities.

“I think the greatest concern is how high we'll go and how quickly we're gonna get there,” said Fegan.

A spokesperson for Cook County Health told Yahoo News on Friday that the hospital was still not facing supply shortages.

Medical personnel
Medical personnel outside Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago. (Jose Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

At the University of Chicago, Yohanna said he expects coronavirus patients will eventually occupy nearly all the beds in the hospital’s newly renovated Center for Care and Discovery (which houses a total of 436 private rooms, including 52 intensive care beds).

“We’re concerned about running out, but we still have ventilators,” he said. Starting Friday, the University’s health system instituted a new policy requiring all staff — from doctors and nurses to cafeteria workers and housekeepers — to wear masks. Yohanna clarified that the hospital is providing washable cloth masks for staff to wear throughout the hospital, but surgical masks are required when entering patient rooms.

“The purpose is not to protect you from infection, but to keep your secretions from getting on surfaces or other people,” said Yohanna. The new universal masking policy coincides with the return of several faculty and staff who’d been furloughed after reporting potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Yohanna suggested that early action by state and local officials to issue stay-at-home orders and close access to the public may ultimately help reduce the peak demand for hospital beds, but it’s too soon to tell.

For now, he said, “we’re still prepared.” As of Friday evening, the latest data from Johns Hopkins University showed Illinois with 3,024 confirmed cases and 26 deaths, 18 of them in Cook County.


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