Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker opened a new COVID-19 field hospital at McCormick Place and urged residents to begin wearing masks outdoors as the virus’ death toll established a new daily record Friday.
Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot toured the newly opened first phase of what will be a 3,000-bed medical facility to treat less seriously-ill COVID-19 patients steered there by existing hospitals, whose focus will be on those requiring the most intense care.
The facility was built from the ground up this week in an astonishingly speedy, collaborative effort involving the Illinois National Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and trade unions, Pritzker said.
“When I walked into this building and saw how it was transformed in just five days, I was truly flooded with an overwhelming sense of pride and patriotism,” Pritzker said. “The teams on the ground here have brought everything to the table for Illinois.
“In less than a week’s time, they’ve assembled 500 rooms and beds, 14 nursing stations and full support rooms for supply storage, pharmacy needs and housekeeping,” he continued. “In one week’s time, the heroes who came together to make this possible built us a facility larger than the largest hospital in Illinois.”
Initially, 140 staff will tend to the 500-bed complex, and it will be led by a team of retired hospital executives, including Dr. Nick Turkal, former CEO of Advocate Healthcare, who will serve as the McCormick Place facility’s executive director.
Joining him as chief operating officer will be Martin Judd, the former head of Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center in Wicker Park, and Dr. Paul Merrick, co-CEO of DuPage Medical Group, who will serve as clinical advisor.
Turkal declined to say how much medical staff stationed at McCormick Place would be paid and, more importantly, whether there would be enough personal protection equipment to go around for those serving ill patients.
“That is an ongoing concern for an entire nation,” Turkal said. “There are discussions at the federal level about how that’ll be distributed in coming weeks. I think we have to say, more to come, on that.”
Friday’s opening came as the COVID-19 death toll and overall caseload rose sharply to new daily records, underscoring the urgency behind getting the McCormick Place facility opened ahead of what likely will be a tsunami of virus-stricken patients swamping hospitals throughout the area this month.
State public health authorities reported 53 more deaths, representing a 34% jump in total deaths statewide. With that increase, which eclipsed the previous single-day record number of deaths of 42 set Wednesday, Illinois’ COVID-19 death toll now stands at 210.
Additionally, there were 1,209 new cases of COVID-19, pushing the overall volume of cases to 8,904. That, too, was more cases in a single day than Illinois has seen since COVID-19 cases began being tracked in late January.
The increasing volumes is already seriously eroding the capacity of the state’s health-care system.
As of Friday morning, nearly 3,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized statewide, with 935 of them in intensive care, accounting for 35% of intensive-care beds in Illinois. Pritzker’s administration reported 666 COVID-19 patients on ventilators, which represents 26% of the more than 2,500 available ventilators in Illinois.
As conditions worsen across the state, Pritzker called on Illinoisans to begin wearing masks whenever they venture outside. His suggestion pre-empted President Donald Trump’s announcement hours later that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all Americans wear masks in public.
The governor recommended homemade cloth masks or manufactured general medical masks.
“The doctors all agree that this virus can be spread through droplets like when you sneeze or cough. So blocking that by wearing a mask in public seems like a common sense way to do what’s right for everyone around you,” Pritzker said.
Here are other highlights from the COVID-19 briefing Friday:
Easing legal liabilities for care providers: A newly issued executive order by Pritzker aims to protect healthcare providers and medical facilities from legal liability while treating COVID-19 patients during Illinois’ state of emergency. Pritzker noted that the rush to round up health-care providers has meant soliciting help from people who left the medical field or tabbing nursing students for full-time work before they graduate. “That’s not a usual way to staff a medical facility, and so the existing liability laws don’t really contemplate that,” he said.
COVID-19 notification obligations of landlords: Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s public health director, said there is no formal process for notifying residents of large buildings of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the building. “If someone is aware, they may post a notice in their building,” she said. Chicago public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said as long as residents of large apartment or condo buildings are isolating themselves upon testing positive, there is no need to notify the whole building. She said there are strict privacy laws around COVID-19 testing, and the city public health department does not notify building owners of the test results of their residents.
New downstate field hospital: Pritzker on Friday announced a fifth back-up location to take in COVID-19 patients once Illinois’ hospitals become overwhelmed. The recently-closed Vibra Hospital in Springfield will serve as such a location, in addition to Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, MetroSouth in Blue Island, Westlake in Melrose Park and McCormick Place.
Ripping on Jared Kushner: Both Pritzker and Lightfoot unloaded on President Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, after Kushner said the federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies doesn’t belong to the states. “I don’t know if Jared Kushner knows this, but it’s called the United States of America. And the federal government, which has a stockpile, is supposed to be backstopping the states. He apparently does not know that,” Pritzker said, saying the federal government has abdicated its responsibility during this crisis. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who said Pritzker showed “incredible restraint,” grew visibly angry as she called into question Kushner’s character for his comments on the work governors across the country are doing. “The federal government has failed to do the planning that it needs on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to be prepared,” she said.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. WBEZ Cook County reporter Kristen Schorsch contributed to this report. Follow her on Twitter @kschorsch.