4 COVID-19 Takeaways From Chicago’s Public Health Chief

Allison Arwady
Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a news conference, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Chicago. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press
Allison Arwady
Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a news conference, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Chicago. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

4 COVID-19 Takeaways From Chicago’s Public Health Chief

As the Chicago Department of Public Health grapples with the spreading COVID-19 crisis, the city is looking for ways to boost hospital capacity and find places to quarantine potentially thousands of people who can’t be at home, WBEZ has learned.

The department is keeping tabs on everything from how hospitals are preparing for a potential influx of patients, to how to get protective gear for nurses and doctors. The city is also securing places to house potentially thousands of people who might catch the new coronavirus and won’t be sick enough to be hospitalized, but will need a place to stay during isolation.

WBEZ sat down this week with Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Here are four takeaways from the conversation.

Does Chicago have enough health care resources to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases?

Arwady would not say how many hospital beds she thinks it will take to deal with all of the city’s cases. But she said hospitals do have room. She noted that delaying elective procedures and moving more doctors’ visits online will free up space inside hospitals for patients who get really sick.

Still, that might not be enough. Illinois’ public health chief has said there are not enough beds and ventilators to help people breathe. But the state public health department has not responded to a WBEZ request about how many beds and ventilators could be needed state-wide during the crisis.

Chicago is preparing to house sick people who can’t live at home

About 80% of people who get COVID-19 will likely have mild symptoms and can ride the disease out at home. But if people can’t stay where they live — say they have an elderly parent or grandparent who they don’t want to infect — the city has a plan, Arwady said.

Chicago has signed one contract so far — Arwady says to expect more — to secure a place where people could stay if they have COVID-19, aren’t sick enough to be in the hospital, but can’t be quarantined at home.

The city has looked at everything from unused portions of hospitals to empty schools, convents and dormitories.

“We’re planning big,” Arwady said. “And I hope I never need to do it.”

The city is planning for potentially thousands of people to need alternative quarantine housing, she said.

How many cases does Chicago expect?

Teams in Chicago are modeling some estimates, but Arwady would not say what those projections are. The city is preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best.

“We are wanting to prepare for some of the situations like we’ve seen in Italy,” Arwady said. “We hope that isn’t what we see, but that’s why we’re thinking as big as we’re thinking.”

Italy has been one of the countries hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients there have overwhelmed the health system so much that doctors are being forced to ration health care resources, deciding who gets care and who doesn’t.

Chicago hospitals plan for big events, like pandemics, throughout the year

Arwady also pointed out that hospitals practice for major catastrophes. In fact, last year Chicago hospitals practiced how to respond if a new strain of flu emerged from China with the first cases in Chicago. They practiced delivering masks and gowns from the city’s stockpile of supplies to hospitals, and modeling what’s known as surge capacity, or having hospitals treat a lot more patients than usual.

“Our Chicago hospitals really rise to the occasion when there are public health needs,” Arwady said. “These are hospitals that may be competitors in normal times.”

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