As the number of COVID-19 cases grows exponentially, state officials, public health experts and medical professionals are anxiously anticipating an overwhelming surge in demand for hospital beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment like masks and, most basically, space to work.
Last week, local nonprofit leaders and elected officials called for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reopen multiple hospitals that have closed across the state, including Metro South Medical Center in Blue Island, Vibra Hospital in Springfield and Westlake Hospital, 1225 W. Lake St. in Melrose Park, in order to help meet the demand for additional medical capacity.
On a recent trip to the shuttered Melrose Park hospital, a prominent sign announcing that the emergency department was closed greeted the rare visitor, but the automatic doors still slid open to reveal an empty reception area. What appeared to be a hospital bed sat at the far end of an empty hallway.
Although local and state officials appear poised to reopen at least one closed hospital in Illinois and are in talks about possibly transforming a convention center into a field hospital, it’s still unclear whether Westlake Hospital will come back online.
On March 25, CBS 2 reported state officials have “identified as many as 7,000 more available beds; from Chicago to the now-shuttered Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, and even as far south as Carbondale.” McCormick Place was also identified as a potential site for housing roughly 2,000 patients. The shuttered hospitals could house another 1,000 patients, CBS 2 reported.
The report added that about “40 potential sites were reviewed by the Air National Guard,” but the report did not make explicit whether or not Westlake was among the sites, although multiple residents of Proviso Township said they witnessed guardsmen near the Melrose Park hospital last week.
Air National Guard Major Dr. Josh Carpenter told CBS 2 that his team surveyed the sites over four days and found that, utilizing multiple locations, they have the “ability to expand services to approximately 6,500 to 7,000 patients all around the Illinois state.”
Carpenter said that the turnaround time varies by site.
“I mean, you know, there’s some that may take a week or two, there’s some that would be ready to turn around within about 36 hours,” he said.
When reached for comment on March 26, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Director Lt. Col. Brad Leighton declined to comment on Westlake’s status.
“We can’t talk specifically about any one property,” he said.
On March 24, Pritzker said the “Illinois Emergency Management Agency and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) are building up triage units at hospitals, bringing offline hospitals and hotels online, and expanding capacity in existing hospitals by acquiring critical equipment, like ventilators, to care for the most severe cases of COVID-19.”
Multiple attempts on Thursday afternoon to reach officials in the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency were unsuccessful. A spokesperson with the public health department’s COVID-19 hotline said it was unlikely that Westlake would be reopened amid the pandemic, because the hospital is privately owned.
Attempts to contact Pipeline Health, the California-based company that purchased Westlake last year a few months before announcing its plans to close the hospital, which had 225 beds when it was operational, were also unsuccessful.
Local nonprofit leaders and elected officials who represent the district where Westlake Hospital is located have been vocal in their desire to see the hospital reopened. On March 25, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (4th), state Rep. Kathleen Willis (77th) and Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (4th) released a joint letter to Pritzker.
“We strongly encourage your careful and expeditious consideration to reopen Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park to help provide additional medical resources and services to our neighbors who need it most,” the legislators wrote.
“We strongly believe that re-opening Westlake Hospital, even with a limited capacity, will have a positive impact in our region as our state advances to meet the growing demands of this pandemic,” they added.
In addition, the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, a Maywood-based social justice nonprofit, launched a petition drive designed to pressure state officials to open Westlake and other closed hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 23, Patch reported that MetroSouth Medical Center “could begin receiving quarantined coronavirus patients as early as this Thursday after the City of Chicago struck an agreement with the current operators to reopen the hospital.”
A spokesperson for Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico said that while Serpico supports reopening Westlake for COVID-19 patients, he has not been involved in any direct discussions about the hospital’s status, because it’s a state matter.
As of March 23, according to the state’s public health department, roughly 52 percent, or 12,588, of the 26,025 hospital beds in Illinois were occupied. Around 58 percent of the state’s ICU beds were occupied and 28 percent of its ventilators were currently in use.