Even with rise in ventilator use at Illinois hospitals, state capacity is in 'a good place'

Dr. Broc Burke, who teaches and practices cardiothoracic anesthesiology at Washington University, tests an emergency ventilator on a simulator mannequin in the Clinical Simulation Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital on April 10.
Dr. Broc Burke, who teaches and practices cardiothoracic anesthesiology at Washington University, tests an emergency ventilator on a simulator mannequin in the Clinical Simulation Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital on April 10.

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On March 19, there were 131 ventilators in use throughout suburban Chicago hospitals, according to state hospital reports obtained by Shaw Media Illinois through the Freedom of Information Act. One month later, on Sunday, there were 529 ventilators in use throughout the suburbs.

Despite adding more than 1,000 ventilators to Illinois hospitals across the state, Illinois’ overall availability of ventilators has slowly trickled downward during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, more than half the state’s ventilators remain open, according to the most recent data reported by IDPH.

That is reason for optimism, said Danny Chun, spokesperson for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, which represents more than 200 hospitals across the state.

“So far, knock on wood, the numbers have been OK,” Chun said. “The capacity has been in a good place.”

According to the IDPH, the state’s health body didn’t start compiling such statewide hospital bed records until the current COVID-19 crisis. The IDPH’s first “Daily Hospital Resource Report” is dated March 19, two days before Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order took effect.

IDPH began releasing statewide hospitalization statistics on its website in early April. Reports obtained by Shaw Media Illinois show the bed and ventilator count two weeks earlier – which, in turn, shows how quickly the state’s ventilator use rose. It also shows that Illinois, as the governor has said, added 1,000 ventilators to its total and more than 500 ICU beds.

According to the IDPH reports, on March 19 the state had 2,164 total ventilators spread across the Illinois Department of Public Health’s 11 regions. At the time 66% of the state’s ventilators were open. By Sunday, the state had bolstered that number to 3,256 ventilators, of which 59% remained open.

“Had we not established mitigation measures, by now we would have needed thousands more ventilators beyond our existing capacity,” Pritzker said Monday during his daily news conference. “So real progress has been made.”

The most striking increases in ventilator use have come in the suburbs.

Region 8 – encompassing DuPage and western Cook counties – went from 32 ventilators in use on March 19 to 194 in use Sunday. Despite obtaining 124 more ventilators, Region 8 hospitals saw availability drop from 84% to 39%.

Region 9 – encompassing Kane, McHenry and parts of Lake, Cook and Kendall counties – went from 17 ventilators in use on March 19 to 150 in use Sunday. Despite adding 137 ventilators in the region, availability dropped from 92% to 55%.

Chun said those individual region numbers shouldn’t be reason for concern because the system as a whole is strong.

“One region might have a greater challenge, but help can be available from other areas of the state and from the IDPH,” Chun said. “They can move ventilators around. If there’s less of a need in one area of the state, they can be moved to an area of greater need.”

IDPH figures from March 19 don’t indicate how many of those ventilators were in use by COVID-19 patients. As of Sunday, 757 of 1,345 ventilators in use across the state were in use by COVID-19 patients, or patients suspected of having COVID-19.

It comes as no surprise that ventilator use has risen as the virus has spread throughout the suburbs and the rest of the state. Illinois now has seen 31,508 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The state continues to announce more than 1,000 new cases per day, which will only increase the need for ventilators.

Pritzker acknowledged Monday that the number of hospitalizations is still rising, “even if that rise is slower.” Chun feels strongly, however, that “there’s capacity in the system.”

The number of ICU beds available in the state has remained relatively stable, in part because the state has added 545 ICU beds. On March 19, the state had 2,589 total ICU beds. As of Sunday, it had 3,134. On March 19, 32% of ICU beds were open. On Sunday, the number of ICU beds open was 30%. As of Sunday, the state was treating 4,599 total COVID-19 patients in Illinois hospitals – including mild and severe cases.

Still, Chun is hopeful that the rate of new infections has flattened out. The number of new infections has remained relatively stable in the range of about 1,000 to 1,500 each day for about two weeks.

“Hopefully, we are flattening the curve,” Chun said. “If you look at the data, it looks like the rate of increase in the number of cases and deaths is flattening out.”

Pritzker outlined a worst-case scenario in late March. He said the state would need about 6,300 ventilators by mid-April if no measures were put into place. Many measures have been put into place, such as the stay-at-home order, and that doomsday scenario has not come to pass.

“Because Illinoisans have come together by social distancing, learning at home and staying at home, we’ve so far prevented our worst-case scenarios,” Pritzker said Monday.

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