Bracing for a flood of up to 40,000 hospitalizations, Chicago may set up thousands of beds at the McCormick Place East building to help area hospitals deal with the coronavirus outbreak, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.
In the coming weeks, the pandemic could lead to “40,000 people who require acute care in a hospital setting. That number will break our hospital system,” the mayor told reporters at a news conference called to announce her unprecedented decision to shut down some of Chicago’s most popular gathering spots, including the lakefront.
Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said there are “dozens and dozens of patients right now in intensive care units on ventilators in Chicago.” Hospitals “do have capacity right now, but they may not very soon.”
That’s why she spent the morning at Lakeside Center at McCormick Place with officials from the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We were looking at what it would take — not in a theoretical way, but in an actual way — to lay out potentially thousands of beds in the conference center that is the symbol of our city’s great tourism and potential,” Arwady said.
“It is part of our pandemic planning, but it is not something that I have ever wanted to consider seriously doing in Chicago. But we’re talking about it — not in theoretical ways.”
To shock Chicagoans into realizing time is short to “flatten the curve” of new coronavirus infections in Chicago, Arwady recalled a city “pandemic exercise” last summer included “fatality management” — which means, if “more people are dying than our typical system would be able to handle.”
For the exercise, “we put up mobile morgues in the parking lot near the Health Department. We brought in pathologists from around the city to really understand what that would look like if we had to expand that capacity,” Arwady said.
“The fact that we’re thinking about them again in serious ways, that we’re talking about them, is because we cannot waste another minute of not taking this seriously. We have to do everything we can to protect our health system. In doing that, we protect you.”
Lakeside Center replaced the original McCormick Place, destroyed in a 1967 fire. It has been mentioned as the site for a Chicago casino. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel even offered to demolish the above-ground portion so he could offer movie mogul George Lucas the lakefront spot he craved for the museum he ultimately took to Los Angeles.
The idea of using Lakeside Center to house patients infected with the coronavirus is shocking in ways that are almost unimaginable. It sounds almost like a scene from the Civil War movie, “Gone With the Wind” with bodies lined up for miles in the streets of Atlanta.
But Lightfoot said the planning going on behind the scenes is painfully real.
“We’re having discussions in coordination and collaboration with the state and others to set up a number of hospital beds in the east building at McCormick Place. When those details are set, we’ll let you know,” the mayor said.
A reporter characterized Lightfoot’s estimate of 40,000 Chicago hospitalizations in the coming weeks as “insane.” The mayor stood her ground. She said it’s based on “a number of different projections based upon modeling” by the city, the state and local hospitals.
“That number is real and it is sobering. It is sobering. Which is why we are saying to people, `You must stay at home.’” the mayor said.
“It is real.”