Hospital officials: Illinois should consider reopening shuttered facilities to help care for COVID-19 patients

Hospital officials: Illinois should consider reopening shuttered facilities to help care for COVID-19 patients

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Illinois’ hospital administrators are recommending that Gov. J.B. Pritzker consider reopening at least three recently shuttered hospitals to ease the strain on Illinois’ medical system as the number of COVID-19 cases mounts.

Westlake Hospital in west suburban Melrose Park, MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island and Vibra Hospital in Springfield all closed within the last two years and are the most obvious choices to reopen, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospitals Association said. The organization is urging the state to look into using the facilities to help relieve the burdens on the state’s hospital system.

Whether expanded facilities come from reopened hospitals, converted vacant space or temporary construction carried out by the National Guard, the new facilities would take weeks to outfit for use, said IHA spokesman Danny Chun. IHA recommended two other facilities for consideration: St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights, which closed in September 2018, and Sacred Heart in Chicago, which closed in 2013.

“It’s not going to be instantaneous. You still have to get equipment there, and that takes time,” Chun said.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said state officials are looking into multiple possibilities, including four facilities no longer in business. Health department officials declined to name the four.

“Hospital capacity is another area we are focusing on -- identifying resources and ways to increase our bed capacity in Illinois to treat those who contract the novel coronavirus," she said Friday at Pritzker’s daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic. “The state has been working with other jurisdictions and businesses to reopen recently (closed) hospitals. We are currently doing assessments at different hospitals in Illinois to determine the condition of the facility, the medical resources available, staffing levels and what else might be needed to reopen these facilities in order to provide medical care for individuals with COVID-19.”

Area hospitals have been cautious about commenting on any plans to expand, mostly saying that for now they are focused on working with the resources they have.

At Stroger Hospital in Chicago, which handles the state’s largest number of uninsured and underinsured patients, officials said there are no immediate plans to build additional capacity but they are taking steps to free up beds.

Hospital officials are discharging as many patients "as practical” and canceling elective surgeries and procedures. And they are working to handle as many patients as possible on the telephone, said Caryn Stancik, spokeswoman for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System.

“This protects both our patients and staff from unintentional exposure and hopefully preserves staff health, which is important as we do not know how long this will last,” she said.

Part of the caution in focusing too much public attention on building out new space, public health experts have said, is that the most crucial task remains slowing the spread of the disease through social distancing. To that end, medical facilities are also trying to enhance their ability to treat people without seeing them face to face. Numerous health care providers are pushing regular patients toward “telehealth” consultations for the time being.

Telehealth is being used for some intake assessments for possible COVID-19 cases as well, Ezike said.

“We have worked with our federal partners to develop guidance for hospitals, to adopt telehealth protocols, so that individuals with mild respiratory symptoms can talk to a health care provider before seeking medical care and possibly infecting others in the process," Ezike said. "We ask again that everyone do our part so that we can preserve both testing capacity and medical care availability, including ICU capability for those who need it the most.

“If you are a healthy individual with only minor symptoms, please stay home and allow those who are at highest risk of severe illness to receive the testing and the medical care that they need.”

Whether shuttered facilities could be returned to use in time to meet the needs of the current pandemic remains unclear. For instance, in the case of south suburban MetroSouth Medical Center, the 314-bed hospital, including its medical equipment, has already been sold to a developer. Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas said Friday that the developer plans to use much of the 700,000-square-foot facility to provide services to veterans.

However, even if added facilities are not ready soon, they may still be of use. “Yeah, there’s going to be a surge over the next couple of weeks, but this virus is going to be around for months,” Chun said. “There’s still going to be a need over the summer.”

Dr. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago Medicine epidemiologist who spoke at Pritzker’s briefing, emphasized that Illinois residents must help protect one another by following the directive to shelter in place. “Without taking drastic measures, the healthy and the optimistic among us will doom the vulnerable,” she said.

David Heinzmann and Hal Dardick are Chicago Tribune reporters. Mike Nolan is a reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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