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Are Chicago Hospitals Ready For Influx Of Coronavirus Patients? Not Likely, Harvard Estimates Show

By Dave Savini, Samah Assad, Chris Hacker, and Michelle Youngerman

The number of those tested positive for coronavirus in Illinois continues to climb. Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced new cases on Wednesday, bringing the total to 288 people spanning 17 counties.

The increased need for testing and treatment comes with questions surrounding whether Chicago hospitals are prepared to handle an influx of patients. Data released Tuesday by the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) reveals the city may not have enough beds at local hospitals and intensive care units (ICU) for the number of people who will ultimately be infected.

A team of HGHI researchers utilized data from the American Hospital Association, the American Hospital Directory and the U.S. Census to arrive at their estimates. The model is built on bed capacity data for each of 306 U.S. hospital markets, or hospital referral regions, in collaboration with ProPublica and The New York Times.

The projected numbers are based on estimates and scenarios that between 20 and 60 percent of Americans will ultimately be infected with COVID-19. The team selected three different timeframes – 6, 12 and 18 months -- to identify how resources would be strained if the total number of cases was spread out over those timeframes.

Hospital Beds In Chicago

CBS 2 Investigators examined the team's "best case model" -- data that specifically estimated the impact if 20 percent of Chicago's population, or 409,014 people, got the virus. We also reviewed the day for potential affects on if 40 and 60 percent of the population is infected.

Chicago has an average of 7,764 hospital beds, according to the data. Less than half, or 3,161, are available for new patients.

That's despite the best case model's estimate that of those projected to be infected, 20% -- or 83,531 -- are expected to be hospitalized at some point during the course of the pandemic. These are annualized averages based on yearly occupancy rates, researchers said.

The Need For ICU Beds

The best case model also estimated an average of 912 ICU beds citywide with only a third (312) available.

However, the data projects 17,529 people in Chicago would need ICU care during the course of the pandemic.

If 40 percent of the population was infected, they estimated 35,059 ICU beds would be needed.

In addition, 52,588 would be needed if 60 percent of the population is infected (the researchers' "worst case model").

The estimates show if 40 percent of the Chicago population is infected within six months, the city would need 2,337 ICU beds to care for them, which is almost four times as many ICU beds are potentially available.

The figure below demonstrates the projected need for resources based on availability in the 40 percent model, over the course of a 6-month timeframe.

"…It's critically important to flatten the curve," said Ben Jacobson, research assistant with with HGHI. "And the more that people practice social distancing and slow the rate of transmission, the less strain is placed on the hospital system."

Chicago Hospital Plans

Rush University Medical Center is one local hospital in "surge" mode working to put contingency plan in place for potential patient overflow. It's hospital tower, designed for an outbreak like coronavirus, has 40 negative pressure rooms to contain infectious particles in the air to its respective room.

Its emergency department is divided into three 20-bed units that can be isolated. In two hours, they said, a wing of the hospital can be converted into a negative pressure ward to treat more patients and nearly double isolation room capacity from 40 to 72.

CBS 2 requested information from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago's Office of Emergency Management & Communications, and the Illinois Department of Public Health about their plans to handle potential patient overflow, including whether or not they're considering other sites for temporary treatment. CBS 2 has not received responses.

Jacobson said even with curve flattening, the HGHI team projects greater demand for ICU care than available capacity -- not only in Chicago, but across the country.

"As such, hospitals and hospital leaders need to begin finding creative ways to expand capacity," he said. "Whether through cancelling elective procedures, repurposing ambulatory surgical centers as ICUs or other strategies."

You can review HGHI's estimates, including the full data set and methodology, here.

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