A Suburban Chicago Hospital System Can Now Test For COVID-19

coronavirus testing
A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs in Lake Success, N.Y. NorthShore University HealthSystem, based in Chicago's north suburbs, can now rapidly test its own patients for COVID-19. John Minchillo / Associated Press
coronavirus testing
A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs in Lake Success, N.Y. NorthShore University HealthSystem, based in Chicago's north suburbs, can now rapidly test its own patients for COVID-19. John Minchillo / Associated Press

A Suburban Chicago Hospital System Can Now Test For COVID-19

NorthShore University HealthSystem can now rapidly test its own patients for COVID-19, the first medical network in the state with the ability to do so as the disease spreads around the globe.

“Based on our resources, we think we can do several hundred tests a day,” said Sean O’Grady, chief clinical operations officer for the north suburban health system. “Our demand is more than that currently. We are running to keep up with ourselves.”

COVID-19 is a new coronavirus disease that’s prompted a sea change in the way people go about their daily lives. There are 32 cases in Illinois. NorthShore is treating one of the patients, who is isolated and in stable condition, a system spokesman said.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has been frustrated that the Illinois Department of Public Health doesn’t have enough kits used to test samples from patients who doctors suspect have COVID-19, despite assurances from the White House.

NorthShore could help relieve that burden — the state has three labs — and potentially become another testing site for other hospitals around Illinois. Chicago-area hospitals already send test samples for other illnesses and conditions to NorthShore’s lab at Evanston Hospital. NorthShore is one of the biggest health systems in the Chicago area, with five hospitals, more than a dozen immediate care centers and a small army of doctors.

Two commercial labs in Illinois also have started testing for COVID-19, giving patients and their physicians even more options, a spokeswoman for the state public health department said.

Currently, hospitals take cheek or nasal swabs from patients suspected of having COVID-19 and send them to the state for confirmation. The state hasn’t had enough kits to test everyone with potential symptoms, so it’s limited who can be tested based on guidance from federal public health officials, such as where they traveled and how severe their symptoms are.

NorthShore plans to test patients who have a fever and a respiratory issue, like a cough and shortness of breath. First, they must test negative for the flu and for RSV, a respiratory illness.

The state still would need to confirm any positive COVID-19 tests from NorthShore and private labs, the Illinois public health agency spokeswoman said.

O’Grady said NorthShore would be able to get results back within 24 hours, instead of waiting sometimes up to five days to get results back from the state as demand for testing has ramped up.

Still, he cautions that NorthShore won’t test patients who don’t have COVID-19 symptoms.

“It is really irresponsible and inappropriate for people to show up demanding that. We are seeing that,” O’Grady said. “I know people are scared, but if they don’t have symptoms, please stay out of the system.”

Hospitals want to make sure there are enough beds for patients who are very ill with the disease.

O’Grady acknowledged some people have mild or no symptoms, but could still have COVID-19.

Public health officials have stressed that people wash their hands often and avoid large gatherings to avoid spreading the disease.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.