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How Illinois hospitals are preparing for a flood of COVID-19 patients

Chris Plance, healthcare expert at PA Consulting, discusses US hospital staffing challenges as the number of coronavirus patients increase.  

Read the full Chicago Tribune article here

The article notes that even as Chicago-area hospitals make preparations to treat a growing number of patients with COVID-19, some experts are warning of scenarios where the system could be overwhelmed.

Hospital leaders are hoping that the cancellation of schools, emptying of restaurants and prohibitions against large gatherings in Illinois will keep their facilities from overflowing with COVID-19 patients in coming weeks and months. But they have already started making changes in case those measures aren’t enough. Many have started reassigning medical staff, canceling elective surgeries to save resources, moving testing for COVID-19 outside typical patient areas and drawing up plans for how to house large numbers of patients.

But some experts say it is unlikely that Illinois’ hospital systems could expand facilities anywhere near enough to avoid being overwhelmed if more than a certain number of people become infected in Illinois in too short a time span.

Researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute teamed up with the nonprofit news organization ProPublica to model what could happen in cities across the country, including Chicago. According to their model, if 20% of people in the Chicago hospital market develop COVID-19 over the course of six months, area hospitals would need about 176% of their available beds. If the transmission of the illness is slowed, such as through social distancing, and 20% get the disease over 12 months, only 88% of Chicago hospitals’ available beds would be needed.

However, if 40% get the illness — regardless of whether it’s over six, 12 or 18 months — Chicago hospitals would need to expand their bed capacity, according to the analysis.

As of Wednesday, 1,764 adult intensive care beds in Illinois were occupied, and 825 were empty, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Illinois had 1,450 ventilators available and 714 in use.

At hospitals across the country, staffing will likely be a major challenge as the number of COVID-19 cases grows.

Chris says that hospitals are typically staffed to about 60% capacity. Even if hospitals can find enough doctors, it could be difficult to hire enough nurses, he said. During bad flu seasons hospitals typically must compete with one another to hire temporary nurses from agencies. And the coronavirus outbreak could be much worse than a nasty flu season.

He adds: “This isn’t Amazon, where Amazon can go hire 100,000 unskilled delivery workers. These are skilled workers, and they’re not just sitting around waiting to be employed.”

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