Doctor who treated first Chicago coronavirus patients describes unknowns during outbreak’s beginning

COVID-19 Pandemic
Data pix.

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. —The local doctor who treated the first, and so far, only coronavirus patients in the Chicago-area described what it was like to be on the frontlines of the global outbreak.

The most difficult part about fighting this disease is the unknown. The head of infection control at a suburban hospital was faced with just that as two local coronavirus patients, a husband and wife, were treated in late January. Both have now fully recovered and returned to their normal daily activities.

Dr Lynwood Jones said the global health community can learn from this local case as he tries to answer the very questions many people are asking.

“It’s very hard to defeat an enemy when you don’t know him,” he said.

Jones saw that enemy up close and personal. The very first Chicago COVID-19 patient, a female in her 60s, came to the emergency room at Amita Health St Alexius Medical Center in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates. The woman had recently arrived home from a trip to China and she was experiencing respiratory, flu-like symptoms. 

“People present as a respiratory illness, a cold, a flu … you can’t distinguish coronavirus from any other virus people may have cough shortness of breath.”

Jones, chair of infection control at the medical center, and his team acted quickly. They quarantined the patient and placed her in airborne isolation. The hospital has 26 rooms equipped with special air filtration systems.

“Blood tests were taken, sputum, nasopharyngeal,  several different body fluids were taken during the early days,” Jones said. “We had to send those samples to CDC.”

Days later, the woman’s husband presented with similar symptoms.

“A team from the CDC came to our hospital as well as a team from IDPH and Cook County, so we had a lot of expertise onsite,” Jones said.

The teams advised hospital staff but also acted as detectives to track down any contacts the two patients had in the weeks leading up to their illness.

“It’s difficult to track those folks down. Actually CDC and IDPH did a good job of doing that,” Jones said.

At the same time, exercising an abundance of caution, the initial hospital workers who had contact with the coronavirus patients were removed from direct patient care.

“In those early times, we didn’t know about exposure to our employees,” Jones said. “No one became positive, so the illness was not transmitted to any employees, nurses, physicians.”

Inside the treatment unit, caregivers wore protective gear including a gown, mask, facial shield and gloves. It was a scenario infection prevention nurse Ann Lucey said the hospital prepared for with dozens of drills.

There were many unknowns at the time as the novel coronavirus had just emerged as a global health threat.

“A few years ago it was SARS. A few years ago it was Ebola. In 1918 it was the Spanish flu,” Jones said. “We always have a new enemy coming up rearing its head and we have to prepare globally. The first three things are don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic.”

All of the efforts at St Alexius Medical Center helped stop the spread of this disease. But there are still a lot of unknowns. So far coronavirus is not infecting children younger than 9. It is hitting men harder than women. And many have asked, once you have it, do you have immunity? Doctors are unsure, but even after you have the flu you can get it again so it is likely that may occur with COVID-19. And what about wearing facemasks to protect yourself? The CDC does not recommend it for prevention but says anyone who has it or suspects they do should wear face protection.

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