As Chicago hospitals prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients, reports obtained by WBEZ offer a first glimpse into how many hospital beds and ventilators are available for the sickest patients.
The reports are the most detailed look yet at how prepared Chicago hospitals are. They track how many intensive-care beds and ventilators are available at 27 hospitals, from March 19 — one day before Gov. JB Pritzker announced a stay at home order to slow the spread of the virus — to April 1.
The Chicago Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment, and has previously declined to disclose specific figures about beds and ventilators available.
Here are three takeaways from the reports.
Enough breathing machines for now
Ventilators help people breathe, and they’ve become a lifeline for COVID-19 patients, many of whom get pneumonia. These machines are in high demand and short supply around the nation.
About two weeks ago, around 1% of patients who had or were suspected of having COVID-19 were on ventilators. That number climbed to about 20% on April 1. Another 30% of non-COVID patients were on ventilators, too.
As of April 1, about 50% of hospitals’ total inventory of about 1,200 ventilators were available to use. That includes more than 100 additional ventilators hospitals gathered in the last week.
On March 19, about 7% of ICU beds at Chicago hospitals were filled with COVID and suspected COVID patients. That climbed almost six-fold to 39% by April 1.
Still, there is room in hospital ICUs despite the pandemic. While coronavirus cases climbed, hospitals freed up space by stopping or severely cutting back on elective surgeries to free up beds and health care workers for COVID-19 patients.
There are nearly 1,000 ICU beds. Hospitals have kept at least 20% of them free.
That’s almost in line with their typical usage. Before the pandemic, hospitals in the Chicago region used about 74% of their ICU beds, leaving almost a quarter empty, the most recent state records show.
Experts caution the reports WBEZ obtained represent just a snapshot in time. The needs of hospitals and the patients they treat change rapidly every day. If there’s a larger outbreak at Cook County Jail, for example, hospitals could get an influx of patients and be strained. They’re also racing to add more staff and train their existing workers to manage ventilators.
These figures also don’t account for field hospitals going up, including the 3,000-bed field medical facility at McCormick Place. The makeshift hospitals aim to take the pressure off existing hospitals by treating COVID-19 patients who are low acuity, and don’t need a higher level of care.
“We are cautiously optimistic given the numbers we see today,” said A.J. Wilhelmi, president and CEO of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, which lobbies for nearly every hospital in the state.
Still, hospitals are working to use even more of their beds for intensive-care patients, and are aggressively looking for more ventilators, Wilhelmi said.
On Friday, Illinois leaders disclosed new COVID-19 figures: cases now total 8,904, and 210 people have died.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics team. Follow her @kschorsch.