Doctor Who Treated Illinois’ First COVID-19 Patients Sees A ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’

A medical workers disinfects cleans personal protective equipment.
A medical worker disinfects cleans personal protective equipment. As Illinois marks the one-year anniversary of its first COVID-19 case, one doctor is reflecting on treating the state's earliest patients. John Locher / Associated Press
A medical workers disinfects cleans personal protective equipment.
A medical worker disinfects cleans personal protective equipment. As Illinois marks the one-year anniversary of its first COVID-19 case, one doctor is reflecting on treating the state's earliest patients. John Locher / Associated Press

Doctor Who Treated Illinois’ First COVID-19 Patients Sees A ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’

On Jan. 24, 2020, public health officials announced Illinois’ first known case of COVID-19. Just 12 months later, the virus has devastated the state, infecting more than 1.1 million residents and taking more than 18,000 lives.

Dr. Lynwood Jones, an infectious disease expert with AMITA Health, helped oversee the treatment of Illinois’ first coronavirus patients at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates. One year later, he joined WBEZ’s Melba Lara to reflect on how the health care community has responded — and what comes next.

Here are a few highlights from their conversation.

On treating the first COVID-19 cases in Illinois

Dr. Lynwood Johnson
Dr. Lynwood Jones was one of the physicians who helped treat Illinois’ first known COVID-19 patients. Courtesy of AMITA Health

Dr. Lynwood Jones: In December, we didn’t know anything about coronavirus. We knew something was going on in China, but we didn’t know exactly the details. Everybody was bracing for it, but we said, ‘Oh, it’s probably going to stay in China, stay out of this country. However, in the middle of January, one of our primary care doctors had a patient who had traveled to Wuhan, China, to visit their relatives, and they had come back and they were sick. That primary care doctor contacted our emergency room and brought the patient in to be evaluated, and that really sent the wheels going. Everybody said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got a possible coronavirus patient.’ And so the hospital really had to gear up for it.

When the patients first came in, we didn’t know a lot about therapy. Our first problem was how to isolate those patients so that they wouldn’t spread the illness to our employees and our physicians and nurses.

On how COVID-19 patients were stigmatized early in the outbreak

Jones: As the months went on and the weeks went on, we found more and more patients had COVID and people were very much afraid. Patients would deny they had COVID, the family members would try to deny it. … It wasn’t as much stigma as you had with HIV or Ebola, but there was a certain amount of stigma. As we’ve progressed … more people are aware of things now and they actually know people who had COVID.

Dr. Allison Arwady speaks at a press conference
Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health, announces Illinois’ first known COVID-19 case on Jan. 24, 2020. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

On the pandemic’s emotional toll on health care workers

Jones: The last year has been tough on all the employees — the physicians, nurses, respiratory techs, the folks who keep our rooms clean. Everybody here has been impacted. Our hospital has really risen to the occasion because everybody says that they’re heroes, but [our employees] don’t think that they’re heroes. They just say they’re doing their job, and they’re doing what they can do to help their patients. But it has been a rough time for the folks in the hospital.

On the challenges ahead

Jones: Back in March, we hardly knew anything. [Now], we know how the disease progresses. We know some forms of therapy, but we still don’t have very good therapy. The best thing that we have now is the vaccines coming out. It’s very impressive scientifically how fast the vaccines have come to people’s arms. I’ve never seen this in 35 years. … So that’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Taking new vaccines is a very personal issue with folks, and they are afraid and they’re apprehensive. Now, I’ve had my vaccine. I’ve had both my shot one and shot two, and I’ve done OK. I haven’t grown a horn. … What I tell people is to take the vaccine, because … that’ll be very helpful for us to try to defeat this virus.

A nurse prepares syringes to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at Elmhurst Hospital
A nurse prepares syringes to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at Elmhurst Hospital on Dec. 12, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lauren Frost is a news producer at WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur. Libby Berry is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @libbyaberry.