If there was a single day when the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus were first seen in Chicago, it was March 12.
On that day, there were just 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported across the state of Illinois, with most in Chicago and Cook County. There had been no confirmed deaths due to the virus.
But, in reality, COVID-19 had been circulating far and wide for weeks, infecting hundreds if not thousands. Now, the worsening symptoms of those infected were showing up in the region’s soon-to-be beleaguered hospitals, a collaboration between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project found.
The first confirmed death of a COVID-19 patient in Cook County didn’t occur until March 16. But a review of hundreds of pages of investigative records from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, including patient files for those who never were tested for COVID-19, revealed how the virus had already torn through nursing homes, jumped between family members returning home from travel and, in many examples, spread in hospitals to staff and patients seeking care for other reasons.
In one notable case, all 12 attending nurses of the same patient at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn were infected in early March after the patient’s son visited his father and brought the virus with him.
And even though several Chicago area hospitals had created isolated COVID units and had given protective equipment to their staff by March 12, a deadly combination of slow testing, lax hospital isolation and visitation protocols — and a preoccupation with overseas travel to China while ignoring travel to most other countries or even U.S. states — exacerbated an already-dire public health crisis.
In those early days of the pandemic, many Illinois hospitals were just learning how the virus presents itself among different patients with underlying conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in an interview. Doctors and nurses would routinely ask themselves, “Is this related to that new illness that people are talking about?” she said.
In that period of time, Ezike recalls, “the information on this virus was evolving daily.”
This is the story of one of those early days, March 12.
An ex-transportation commissioner, a South Side appliance repairman
That day, 80-year-old John LaPlante, a former Chicago transportation commissioner, had been in Evanston Hospital for four days after developing congestion, a runny nose, fatigue and later a fever.
LaPlante, a civil engineer who had lived in the city nearly his entire life, had traveled down the Nile River on an Egyptian cruise with his wife and had spent time in Jordan in late February.
After coming home, his daughter, Leslie, said her father thought he had a case of jet lag or a cold. “I don’t think he felt terribly sick when they got back,” she said. “But then he didn’t feel better, he felt worse as the week went on.”
On March 12, his condition quickly deteriorated, with a rapid loss of oxygen, and he was moved into an isolated section of the intensive care unit. His family was in touch with Chicago health officials but was told there was little else they could do.
“Everybody I dealt with was extremely compassionate and doing their best and trying to figure out a brand new thing that was going on,” his daughter said. LaPlante, who family members said enjoyed playing the guitar and singing, and had a problem-solving mindset and a deep love of Chicago, was intubated a day later and he never regained consciousness. He died on March 21.
That day, Carl Redd, a 62-year-old former appliance maintenance repairman from Auburn Gresham, was receiving treatment at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center on the Near West Side.
In mid-February, Redd had an asthma attack and had developed a 101-degree fever. After calling 911, he was taken by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital before being transferred to the VA. Redd, an Army veteran, had been in and out of area hospitals over the previous five months, according to his family and medical records.
The Redd family was initially confused when told Carl had tested positive for COVID-19. His wife, Lillian, told doctors he hadn’t traveled. None of his family had tested positive. He had been in the hospital for weeks prior to his positive test.
“The hospital stopped all visitors, so we were like, ‘Wait, he was tested a week ago, and his test was negative,’” said his sister, Pamela Redd.
Now, they believe he contracted COVID-19 while in one of the two hospitals, from a staffer. Redd’s medical records make no reference to how he got the virus but do note that none of his family had tested positive.
Shortly after he was admitted, Jesse Brown went on lockdown to outside visitors. Redd, who had worked for decades at Sears in their HVAC department before retiring and had four daughters, had his “ups and downs just like everyone did” but had a “laid-back” personality, a “Cheshire cat”-wide grin and a love for grilling barbecue, his family said.
He died March 21.
“No one was there to hold his hand,” Pamela Redd said. “Somebody from the hospital might have been in the room. I don’t know because they didn’t discuss that. But there is nothing like family being there when you take your last breath, even if he was unconscious.”
‘Now I wish it was later and ... more could have been done’
On March 12, 87-year-old Charles “Cookie” Dungill, of Chatham, had been at Christ Medical Center for two days. He had been admitted by private ambulance after developing abdominal pain and a fever according to medical records.
Dungill, a drummer who had toured the Jim Crow South in his younger years as part of a family band, had gotten sick after he and hundreds of family members and friends gathered for a memorial for his late daughter, 59-year-old Angeli Demus, at Pullman Christian Reformed Church on the South Side. The CDC later designated the memorial, which had as many as 450 people in attendance, as a superspreader event that took place weeks before any restrictions were in place on large gatherings, USA Today reported.
One of Dungill’s children, Sevil, visited his father in the hospital and would test positive for COVID after having traveled abroad earlier in the year, according to the medical examiner’s case report. The records show a dozen of Charles Dungill’s attending nurses would test positive for the virus and Dungill would later die from it, although his son recovered.
At the same time at Advocate Christ Medical Center, Adrienne Garvin was working as a nurse while her father, John B. Olsen, a 69-year-old retired pharmacist from Oak Lawn, would soon be a patient there.
Olsen who had become his wife’s caretaker as she fought several cancer-related illnesses, had attended an international pharmacy convention in Kentucky in late February. The conference had more than 800 attendees and Olsen had spent time with those from Norway and Sweden.
It’s unclear if Olsen contracted the virus at the conference. But, soon after, he visited his primary-care doctor who thought he could be suffering from a sinus infection.
But Olsen’s condition worsened. Hospital staff called their colleague, Adrienne, every day. But without the emergency approval to use plasma or experimental drugs, treatment options were limited. Her father had been around his wife and grandchildren in the days leading up to his hospitalization and none of their family members had gotten sick with the virus, Garvin said.
Olsen was the first person to die of COVID at Advocate Christ Medical Center, and was among the first COVID deaths in Illinois. Olsen’s wife suffered a stroke six weeks after his death and died in September, also at Advocate Christ.
“Now I wish it was later and hopefully something more could have been done,” Garvin said. “I was asking why he couldn’t try any of these experimental things and they couldn’t. They had to wait for FDA approval but they were very good about explaining what they were doing.”
Travelers, non-travelers impacted
Dozens of death and investigative reports by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office indicate that the virus quickly reached both Chicago area residents who had recently traveled in the early months of 2020 and those who had stayed put even before stay-at-home orders emerged.
Luis Juarez-Jimenez, a 54-year-old from Romeoville, had developed flu-like symptoms after attending a large family gathering on Feb. 29. He too would show up at a hospital, AMITA Adventist, on March 12.
On March 12, Julio Bueta — after traveling to his home country, the Philippines, with a layover in South Korea earlier that month — began struggling to breathe. His wife, Celestina, immediately took him from their Oak Lawn home to Little Company of Mary Hospital. Bueta, a 66-year-old father to four daughters, likely contracted the virus on the South Korea leg of his flight, the records say.
On March 12, Patricia Frieson, a retired South Side nurse, arrived at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She lived alone in an apartment and had struggled for days with a cough, congestion, chills and shortness of breath, the records note. She had recently spent seven days in Arkansas, where she was from, and came home sick. She had also visited with her brother in Chicago, who had also traveled to Florida. She died March 16, becoming the first person to die from coronavirus in Illinois.
On that same day, 74-year-old Joseph Cannon walked into the ER at Roseland Hospital, saying he had been vomiting and had stomach pain. He was tested for COVID four days later but had to wait another six days for the results to come back. They came back positive and he, too, died.
There were warning signs far before March 12.
Roland Damsch had been living in the Prairie Manor Nursing Home in South Chicago Heights for a month when, on the morning of Feb. 27, he was found unresponsive in his bed by staff members. Even though Damsch had several underlying conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and obesity, he had been improving since moving into the nursing home in early February and had been taking warfarin. He was 65 years old when he died. The primary cause of death was listed as pneumonia.
The nursing home where Damsch lived, Prairie Manor Nursing and Rehab, has reported as many as 76 cases of COVID-19 and at least 10 deaths; Damsch is not recorded as one of them and medical records show he was never tested for the virus.
“The greatest number of deaths in any single place has been in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities,” said Dr. Howard Ehrman, a former assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “That’s where the greatest disparity was before COVID, and during COVID.”
Kyra Senese is a reporter for the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project, a collaborative open-records journalism initiative made up of researchers from Columbia and Stanford universities.