As the COVID-19 pandemic grips the Chicago area, hospitals are bracing for a potential deluge of sick patients.
After years of keeping scores of hospital beds empty on purpose as fewer people needed them, hospitals are hustling to scale up. They’ve pitched tents outside emergency rooms to evaluate people who might have the new coronavirus, to avoid possibly spreading it to other patients in the ER.
The nonstop message for patients: stay home and call your doctor first before going to the hospital. Medical centers are trying to protect as many beds as they can for potential COVID-19 patients — and prevent nurses, doctors and others on the front lines from getting sick.
WBEZ recently talked with half a dozen leaders at local hospitals and immediate care centers about how they’re preparing. Here’s what we’ve learned.
Do hospitals have enough beds for COVID-19 patients?
Public health officials are modeling different scenarios to figure that out. There are 209 hospitals in Illinois. As of Monday morning, they had 705 beds available in their intensive care units for the sickest patients, 525 isolation rooms and nearly 1,300 ventilators to help people breathe, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. These numbers change daily.
Overall, there is room for more patients in hospitals. Doctors, nurses and others only use about two-thirds of hospital beds for general use, the most recent state data shows.
“At the city level, there’s a group that’s forming to look at critical care surge across the city, meaning how many beds do we have right now, what are our capabilities to grow, how many ventilators we have, etc.,” said Dr. David Ansell, a senior vice president at Rush University Medical Center on the Near West Side.
During a news conference on Tuesday announcing the first COVID-19 death in Illinois, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who runs the Illinois public health department, said the number of beds and ventilators aren’t enough. Officials are thinking about how to get people with the most need into hospital beds.
Hospital leaders told WBEZ they could use other types of beds for COVID-19 patients in an emergency if those designated for critical care are full.
Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, a regional destination for the sickest kids, is preparing for a potential 20 percent increase in patients, said Dr. Larry Kociolek, an infectious disease specialist at Lurie who is on a team preparing for COVID-19.
That’s even though children have a low risk of getting the new coronavirus. The danger though, is sick kids passing the disease on to people who could get dangerously ill, like their grandparents or siblings with compromised immune systems, Kociolek said.
What else are hospitals doing to deal with the influx?
Hospitals are getting creative. Rush cleared out more than two dozen beds in a section of its hospital for COVID-19 patients. It converted an ambulance bay into a triage area for potential cases to separate them from other patients arriving in Rush’s emergency room for ailments like a sprained ankle. And Rush opened an outpatient clinic to evaluate people who might have the new coronavirus.
Rush’s emergency room was designed with health care disasters, like a pandemic, in mind.
NorthShore University HealthSystem leader Sean O’Grady said: “From moment to moment, we’re evaluating how far we need to go.”
The hospital is considering how to convert floors into negative pressure zones that prevent airborne contaminants from leaving patients rooms.
“This is so fluid. We don’t really know how much inpatient demand we can expect to see,” O’Grady said. “It would depend on how significantly the older adult population is impacted.”
Supplies are a big concern
Nurses and doctors need to wear special masks and gowns, face shields and goggles when treating COVID-19 patients. Supplies are in high demand. Hospitals are having a hard time keeping up.
Nurses and doctors typically can only wear each piece of equipment once, and per patient room. If they wore the same mask from room to room, they could carry infections with them.
“The burn rate is increasing significantly as we isolate more patients,” said Dr. Sanjeeb Khatua, an executive vice president at Edward Elmhurst Health in the west suburbs.
During the Tuesday news conference, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker blasted the federal government, saying it is “monopolizing,” supplies. He said the state is working “the supply chain” to acquire more equipment and supplies. But he also said the state will continue to demand the federal government increase availability of tests.
What hospitals are putting on hold
Several hospitals are delaying elective surgeries for patients.
Lurie is considering using telehealth for check ups so kids don’t have to come to the hospital campus or to the medical center’s outpatient clinic. This also helps prevent nurses, doctors and other employees from getting exposed to COVID-19, Kociolek said.
Rush is moving all non-urgent visits to virtual visits with a doctor.
Are patients currently crowding hospital ERs?
Hospitals are seeing an uptick in people flowing to their emergency rooms, but it’s also flu season. Loyola University Medical Center, for example, in west suburban Maywood has seen a spike in cases since February, rather than in November and December like it usually does, said Dr. Kevin Smith, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
“We do have patients who are coming in with viral-type symptoms that are not sure if they’re COVID or not, and then we’re seeing patients who clearly have flu,” Smith said.
“Sometimes telling the difference between flu and COVID is not necessarily that easy,” he added.
Both can include a cough and a fever, for example.
Get ready for more testing
More hospitals are developing their own tests for patients in-house, as well as drive-thru options for prospective patients. There haven’t been enough tests in Illinois to see if even people who are really sick have the virus.
The federal government also has added expanded criteria for who can be tested, such as people who have a fever, a cough and a chronic condition or are hospitalized.
So when testing is ramped up, expect more people will test positive for COVID-19, doctors say.
When should patients stay home or go to the ER?
Doctors are pleading with people to review their symptoms with their primary care physicians first so they don’t clog hospital ERs.
But what if you can’t get a hold of your doctor?
Have patience, and still stay home.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.