How Hospitals Are Coping With a Surge in COVID-19 Cases

The lead physician for Cook County Health’s COVID-19 units, Dr. Michael Hoffman, isn’t mincing words in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

“Make no mistake that people will die because of Thanksgiving gatherings,” he said Monday at a press conference arranged by the health care system after employees grew frustrated and upset about reports of airports crowded with people heading home for the holidays.

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Illinois Department of Public Health data shows that as of late Sunday night, Chicago (labeled by the state as Region 11 for coronavirus tracking purposes) had 236 intensive care unit beds available out of 919.

As the number of coronavirus cases — and those who need to be hospitalized because of it — rise across the U.S., there’s a renewed concern about a lack of beds, personal protective equipment and even medical personnel.

Cook County Health clinical nurse Nimmy Tom cares exclusively for coronavirus patients, and she’s due to give birth to her second child in January.

She’s worried that she won’t be able to stay home with her newborn daughter because Thanksgiving family feasts will lead to another COVID-19 spike, requiring all hands on deck at work.

Dr. Robert Shulman, Rush University Medical Center’s acting chair of psychiatry and behavioral services, has a coronavirus concern of his own — one that he says is too often overlooked: the psychological toll of continued isolation.

It’s harder to quantify, but Shulman eyes increases in emergency room visits related to alcohol abuse and swelling demand for psychiatry service.

“I think that there has been a tremendous sort of untold toll on the general population,” he said. “Through all of this, there’s anxiety. There’s a sense of fear. There’s isolation, and I think these start to effect people after awhile.”

It can cause a loss of sleep, diminished appetite and energy; the anxiety can be a precursor to depression, that individuals may turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.

He even wonders about the impact — particularly on young children — of not being able to read the innate social cues of someone smiling at them, given that those smiles are hidden behind face masks.

His advice: Take care of yourself with regular sleep and exercise — even it that’s just a 20-minute walk. And, he said, even with COVID-19 infections on the rise, it's important to connect with others.

“You have to work hard at maintaining a connection to diminish your isolation. Granted, it’s going to be virtual. But you’re going to have to do something. You’re going to have to reach out to people, you want to reach out to your loved ones if you’re worried about anyone,” Shulman said.

Meanwhile, those hospitalized with severe cases of the coronavirus may have to combat other medical difficulties and physical maladies, even after they’re healthy enough to go home.

Rush will soon debut a multi-specialty clinic to support these recovering patients facing neurological, circulatory and cardiac issues. 

Both Rush and Cook County Health’s Stroger hospitals are on the campus of the Illinois Medical District, a cluster of medical centers and companies located about 2 miles west of the Loop.

The district’s director, Suzet McKinney, said the close proximity can spur innovation and collaboration; early in the pandemic, hospitals and another health institution held biweekly conference calls to assess their abilities to deal with a COVID-19 surge with the potential to share resources.

Those calls were put on pause but are set to resume this week.

“We want to ensure that the hospitals and the staff there are reminded that those resources and those partnerships are in place. There’s nothing that’s extremely urgent at this point,” McKinney said.

McKinney is also a lead on the state of Illinois’ alternate care facilities, such as when the McCormick Place Convention Center was converted to a space for COVID-19 overflow patients; the makeshift facility was dismantled after barely any use.

McKinney said she recognizes that nationally, there’s criticism that alternate care facilities are unnecessary and a waste of money.

“My perspective on the issue is: preparedness is a journey. It’s not a destination. And so for our system here in Illinois I think it’s much more reassuring to the residents of our state that we have a capability and not need it, rather than needing a capability and not have it,” she said.

Illinois is currently maintaining the shuttered Metro South hospital should it need to be activated.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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