Chicago's Democratic convention could cause traffic nightmares for hospitals near United Center

The convention will mean traffic delays and delivery disruptions for patients and health care workers — and hospital leaders are preparing for the worst if catastrophe strikes.

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An elevated train goes past Rush University Medical Center in Chicago on a grey, cloudy day.

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago is one hospital within the Illinois Medical District that could be heavily affected by the Democratic National Convention happening Aug. 19-22.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

With tens of thousands of delegates, elected officials and protesters expected to flood Chicago next month for the Democratic National Convention, the city’s busiest health care nexus could be facing some serious blockages.

Hospital officials within the Illinois Medical District told the Sun-Times they’re bracing for major disruptions to their operations as convention-goers flock just up the street to the United Center for the Aug. 19-22 convention, which is expected to draw some 50,000 people to the city.

It’ll mean traffic delays and delivery disruptions for patients and health care workers even under the smoothest of circumstances — and hospital leaders are also preparing for the worst if catastrophe strikes.

“Ashland [Avenue] will be a parking lot,” said Rush University Medical Center spokesperson Tobin Klinger.

Just how bad traffic could get snarled isn’t clear. The Secret Service is still finalizing plans for a security perimeter around the Near West Side arena, and those plans won’t be released until late July.

Hospital officials expect the perimeter to butt up against the medical district, which lies south of the Eisenhower Expressway down to Roosevelt Road, between Ogden and Ashland avenues. The district includes Rush, Cook County Health, the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System, several nonprofits and city, county and state health agencies.

About 88,000 people travel to the Illinois Medical District daily for work or treatment.

“The Illinois Medical District is critical infrastructure,” said Allyson Hansen, chief executive officer of the Illinois Medical District Commission, which oversees the enclave of health care centers. “We have to be open for business for people who need care. Doctors will also still have appointments, patients will still be coming through, staff need to get to their place of work. So we’re preparing for whatever will interfere with that.”

The Secret Service’s plan is expected to impose its high-security buffer zone within a two-block radius around the United Center, where the convention’s marquee events will be staged — and where protests are expected to be most animated.

Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, “The hospitals have been a part of the National Special Security Event planning subcommittees, and we will have guidance if any operations are affected.”

During the 1996 convention at the United Center, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, Rush’s previous name, stepped up security, canceled staff vacations and required workers to be on call 24 hours a day, the Sun-Times reported at the time.

The precautions were made in case a VIP, like the president, needed urgent care or if a mass casualty emergency happened.

But traffic is a bigger concern than it was in 1996. In the 28 years since, development has boomed on the Near West Side, bringing more people and businesses to the area.

Officials at Cook County Health and Rush — the two northernmost hospitals in the district, each less than a mile from the United Center — say they’ve been in touch with convention organizers, city officials, local and federal law enforcement and the other medical centers within the district.

“We are holding regular internal planning meetings to ensure that the health system is prepared for any situation that may arise, including road closures, increased security needs, or medical surges,” said Craig Williams, chief administrative officer for Cook County Health.

The medical center is stocking up on supplies in case deliveries are affected, Williams said in a written statement, but “expects to maintain normal operations at Stroger Hospital, the Professional Building and Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center during the course of the DNC.”

At Rush, patients with appointments for the week of the convention have the option to either reschedule, shift the visit to a virtual telehealth appointment or see a doctor at a different location, said Shonda Morrow, Rush’s vice president of patient care services.

“We understand the importance of the DNC being in Chicago,” Morrow said. “We also recognize what that means to our staff and patients who might be feeling a sense of anxiety about how [the convention] will impact them.”

One of Rush’s primary care clinics, at 1700 W. Van Buren St., is close enough to the United Center that it’s likely to fall within the bounds of the security perimeter, further complicating matters for patients and employees.

Rush said it’s waiting for the final perimeter map to decide whether that building remains open during the convention.

Rescheduling not an option for some

Morrow also acknowledged that rescheduling or avoiding the hospital is not an option for many patients, whether they’re pregnant with an Aug. 20 due date or someone in need of emergency surgery.

To help those patients get in easier, moving nonessential appointments to virtual visits would ease congestion and “help everybody out,” Morrow said.

The other option for patients is to schedule a visit at a different Rush clinic or hospital.

The hospital is allowing staff members who can work from home to do so that week. Most jobs in medicine can’t be done remotely, though, so Rush is readying its employees to deal with traffic headaches and to show IDs to get through security checkpoints.

The Jesse Brown VA Medical Center also expects more traffic during the convention and is prepping staff and patients, saying it’s awaiting a final security-perimeter map to gauge the impact on its operations.

Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave., Chicago

The Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave., is one of several health care facilities bracing for the impact of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago Aug. 19-22.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

The hospital will offer telehealth appointments for patients and has been holding weekly town halls with staff to keep them up to date and prepare them for disruptions, according to a statement.

A spokesperson for UI Health also stated the medical center is waiting on details of the final security perimeter, and the hospital plans to have more staff on hand in case there is a spike in patients.

Bracing for potential for mass casualties

Dr. Nicholas Cozzi, EMS medical director at Rush and an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine, said the hospital is prepared for a mass casualty incident at the United Center.

Whether it’s a shooting, explosion or if riot control agents are used during a protest, the hospital would be one of the first places patients would go for help, Cozzi said. He recently led staff through a drill to prepare for a range of such incidents.

“If something happens that causes mass panic, patients start running across the Paulina and Damen bridges, and they see the big Rush green logo,” Cozzi said. “We have the ability for our nurses and our emergency physicians to immediately take care of them.”

The hospital’s ambulance bays were rebuilt in 2012 for mass casualty and disaster management, Cozzi said. If a chemical or gas attack happens, one of the bays can quickly become a hazmat decontamination unit.

A spokesperson for Cook County Health said Stroger’s Level 1 trauma center regularly conducts exercises to make sure staff are prepared for a mass casualty situation.

“I want our staff to feel confident that they can feel safe coming in and out of work, that they’re going to be able to do their jobs,” Cozzi said, “but to also realize there’s a lot of unknowns with this.”

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