As Illinois officials continue to increase measures intended to slow the coronavirus infection rate throughout the state, one of the chief concerns remains the potential effect on the state's health care resources.
Experts worry that even a modest uptick in severe cases could overwhelm hospitals and health care workers.
Illinois Department of Public Health officials on Wednesday reported more than two-thirds of the 2,589 intensive care unit beds in Illinois' hospitals are already in use, and one-third of the state's 2,164 ventilators are also taken by current patients, the vast majority of whom are not suffering from coronavirus infections.
"The number of ICU beds is adequate," said Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Hospital and Health Association. "It becomes an issue when you have a sudden surge and it's something you can't really plan for."
The current level of use is fairly average, health care officials said.
But with the looming threat of a massive growth of viral infection, it won't take much to overpower the limits of the state's medical capabilities, medical experts said. On Sunday, the state reported there have been nine deaths and 1,049 infections since the outbreak began.
"The strategies we've implemented will help keep the curve flat, but some of the models are disquieting and show that even with a moderate outbreak, the kind of negative impact that will have on our health care system," said Dr. Ronald Hershow, director of the division of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois-Chicago's School of Public Health. "We're going to need ICU beds to handle any influx of patients."
Many hospitals already are preparing for that potential influx.
Dr. Sanjeeb Khatua, executive vice president/chief physician executive at Edward-Elmhurst Health, is leading his medical group's coronavirus response efforts. Khatua said 60 new beds in isolation rooms were added to Edward Hospital in Naperville, including 26 ICU rooms.
Additionally, 14 new isolation rooms are being added at Elmhurst Hospital to go with the 34 already in place.
"Each health system in the state is looking how to expand and use different areas of their current hospital in different ways," Khatua said.
According to a 2018 Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board report, the state's 211 hospitals were authorized to have almost 900 more ICU beds than currently exist. Additionally, the hospitals are authorized for almost 5,000 more beds of all types than were in place at the time of that report, leaving some room for expansion. But the ability to create more isolation space, with negative airflow to prevent spread of infections, might depend on the age of the hospital.
"Some of the modern ones built within the past 10 years can do it because they planned ahead for pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks," Chun said.
However, staffing might be a significant problem and keeping them safe the biggest problem of all.
"I don't have a way of fully defending the sense that we're not prepared for a response to this disease," Hershow said. "After each (prior) episode, we said we got lucky and we've got to do better next time, and believe me, there are plans. There is reason for disappointment."
The shortfall of personal protective equipment -- masks, gloves, gowns -- for health care workers has baffled experts.
The equipment was supposed to be part of a national stockpile overseen by the federal government, but some items weren't properly replenished as far back as the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, according to warnings issued by the International Safety Equipment Association in the wake of that outbreak.
The association issued a plea for donations of safety equipment Thursday.
"Hospitals all over the state are in jeopardy of potentially running out of critically needed protective medical supplies," said Illinois Hospital and Health Association CEO A.J. Wilhelmi. "With continuing uncertainties about global and U.S. supplies of face masks, we urgently need to find alternative supplies, no matter where they are, so our hospitals can continue to provide lifesaving care to current and future COVID-19 patients."
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has urged all medical personnel to sign up with the state's emergency notification system in case their services are needed in an emergency.
"Labor pool is extremely important and every health system is looking into the makeup of hospital staff and qualifications," Khatua said. "We're looking at the use of different skill sets and how to best redeploy them."
Chun said the state needs to go further, by asking retired nurses and physicians who are still licensed to volunteer. He also suggested licensed medical professionals from outside the state be allowed to practice without having to go through the standard regulatory hurdles required by Illinois.
On Saturday, Pritzker asked former medical professionals to come back to "join the fight," promising to cut bureaucracy.
State Sen. Laura Murphy, a Des Plaines Democrat and member of the senate's public health committee, said she has no recollection of the committee having much to do with hospital pandemic preparedness in the past.
"But I bet you we will when we meet up again when this is all over," she said.