CHICAGO (CBS) — Statewide the number of new COVID-19 cases dropped dramatically — well below 10,000 — for the first time in nearly two weeks. But there were 140 deaths reported Wednesday in just the last 24-hour period. Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, painted a bleak picture of the situation at the state’s hospitals.
“The number of COVIDs in the hospitals, however you want to count it, has gone extremely up and to the point where people who are coming in with a compound fracture might be sitting in the emergency room for days waiting to either be transferred to a place where there is a bed, another place, or waiting for someone in the hospital to be released before they can get in,” she said.
Health officials are certainly sounding the alarm. But what happened to the four sites that were transformed into makeshift COVID-19 hospitals earlier this year at taxpayers’ expense?
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It was a quick, almost Herculean effort last spring. Private contractors, the United State Army Corp of Engineers, and the National Guard helped transform three shuttered hospital and McCormick Place into alternate COVID care facilities. They were ready and waiting. Fewer than 36 people were ever treated at McCormick Place. Then the state decided they didn’t need them.
“I believe the investment was in the about $15 million range,” said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain.
That $15 million, said Kaptain, was just to convert the former Sherman Hospital site in his city. It was ready to go on April 24. Illinois health officials put it on hold April 27, and despite signing a lease, Kaptain said the state gave it back to the owners in September.
“My understanding is the state has said that it’s not going to be occupied,” he said.
But what about McCormick Place, the former Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, and Metro South Hospital in Blue Island? They, too, were set up and ready to be used in April at an estimated cost of at least $15 million per site. Illinois’ public health director said only one, Metro South, might be used.
“That one is in what we call the warm state,” she said. “If we gave the go-ahead and said we need to open it, within, you know, a couple of weeks it would be ready to go.”
Gov. JB Pritzker said only Metro South is in the so-called warm state, but a spokesperson for IDPH said Westlake could be used again, too, if needed.
“We want to hold off on our alternate care facilities until we are at that dire point,” Ezike said.
As for McCormick Place, neither Pritzker nor Mayor Lori Lightfoot believes it would ever be transformed back into a COVID care site. The mayor would not characterize the short-lived more than $15 million site a taxpayer boondoggle either.
“It was appropriate at the time,” Lightfoot said.
In the spring Lightfoot said one reason they were dismantling the care site was so the conventions could return. That never happened.
Should the Metro South site be reopened, it would treat the less serious COVID cases.