Northwestern Medicine Health System preparing for patient surge

Kish, Valley West hospital president talks game plan for coronavirus care

The parking lot at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb is nearly empty Thursday despite the ongoing coronavirus concerns.
The parking lot at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb is nearly empty Thursday despite the ongoing coronavirus concerns.

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Jay Anderson, president of Northwestern Medicine’s Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb and Valley West Hospital in Sandwich, said they’re bracing for the surge.

“We’re preparing for the patient surge,” Anderson said. “Northwestern Medicine, in concert with our local government, the state of Illinois and the country is preparing for this pandemic to arrive in our area.”

It hasn’t surged yet, he said, though Northwestern Medicine facilities across the region have created a surge plan to help balance out patient volume across the hospitals. As of Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health has reported 141 deaths because of COVID-19, with cases expected to surpass 7,000 Friday, many in the region covered by Northwestern facilities.

Hospitals in the state have, in turn, braced for the impact: overrun ICU wards, overworked staff, an exceedingly dwindling supply of Personal Protective Equipment. It’s a sight that’s not yet hit Illinois, if our neighbors to the east and west coasts are anything to go by, Anderson said.

Anderson said Northwestern Medicine has a plan, though.

“I think right now as a health system, we’re feeling prepared,” he said. “Even here locally [in DeKalb], we’ve been able to acquire new ventilators from local sources. I am sitting right next to a bottle of Whiskey Acres hand sanitizer as we speak. And just in the emergency room, I saw some Upstaging Inc. face shields.”

Similar to other area hospitals, Kishwaukee has been for weeks the beneficiary of efforts to ensure PPE and other needed supplies for hospitalized COVID-19 patients are available.

“It’s important to realize why we’ve done it,” Anderson said. “We’re creating a capacity for when the surge happens and allowing us to do some things that other areas in the country didn’t have the ability to prep. We’re also converting many of our rooms with negative air pressure.”

Anderson said the entire ICU, which includes separated patient rooms with one bed in each, at Northwestern Medicine hospitals have been converted to negative air pressure, which helps if a COVID-19 patient is hospitalized and needs to be intubated or placed on a ventilator to help them breathe.

“When you intubate a patient, we call it an aeresolizing procedure,” he said. “Fluid gets aerosolized from the patients. You want that [fluid] taken out of the room so you create a negative air pressure though a HEPA filter, which cleans it and pushes it out of the room.”

Anderson said local construction companies helped install filters into the ICU room ventilation systems.

Northwestern Medicine has also taken efforts to restrict visitors, postpone all elective surgeries and transition physician visits to primarily telemedicine and remote appointments only, in the hope that beds will be freed up and space will be ready for the patient surge.

It’s resulted in a strange phenomenon: fewer visitors, fewer elective patients, means less cars in hospital parking lots. The hashtag #emptyhospitals swept through social media this week, with conspiracy theorists surmising hospitals weren’t being fully utilized to fight the coronavirus because their parking lots were empty.

Anderson said that’s simply not true.

“I wasn’t aware of the Internet chatter on the topic,” he said. “We’re doing all the right things to change the dynamic inside the halls of our hospital because those are a lot of feet that would be walking through our doors.”

He said because elective surgeries have been cancelled, nurses and other staff have been rerouted and trained to work in the ER and ICU instead.

“As I talk to them, many just look me in the eyes and say ‘This is why I went to nursing school,’ physicians saying ‘what else do you need me to do?’” Anderson said. “That’s the heart of our care team. Everybody’s learning as we go along.”

As far as PPE, Anderson said he believes Northwestern has enough to get through a patient surge.

He said the DeKalb County Health Department also has plans in case the hospitals exceed their patient capacity.

In a forum Wednesday, DCHD nurse practitioner Cindy Graves, who used to be the emergency room director at Kish, said she recalled days when the ER would brace for lagging in-patient bed availability because of elective surgeries scheduled.

“As far as additional [bed capacity[, I know that there’s always a plan of alternative care sites that have to be a part of a hospital plan,” Graves said. “I don’t know and wouldn’t be at liberty to say, either. I know that is part of their plan, I just don’t have any specifics on that.”

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