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McCormick Place Could House Thousands Of Hospital Beds As Pandemic Surges In Chicago

Officials are in discussion about how they can turn the enormous conference center into a spot where thousands of hospital beds could be set up amid the coronavirus crisis.

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CHICAGO — The city is in talks to set up thousands of hospital beds in McCormick Place amid a surge of coronavirus cases.

Chicago already has 949 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and that number will hit 1,000 by Friday, said Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Already, “dozens and dozens” of patients are in intensive care units throughout the city.

“We could be expecting upwards of 40,000 hospitalizations in the coming weeks,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, noting those 40,000 people would need “acute care.” “That number will break our health care system.”

And while Chicago’s health care system has not yet been overwhelmed by COVID-19, officials have been working feverishly to prevent that from happening in the near future. That’s why they’re now working with the state and others to see if they can turn McCormick Place’s East Building into a place where thousands of patients could be treated.

Such a scenario has been a part of planning for a pandemic in the past, but Arwady said it is now reality in Chicago.

State and city officials met with the Army Corps of Engineers to talk about the plans for McCormick Place as recently as Thursday morning.

“We were looking at what it would take, not in a theoretical 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 I have ever wanted to consider seriously in Chicago.

“But we’re talking about it not in theoretical ways. We’re working right now to do everything we can to protect our health care system.”

Also during past pandemic planning, the city set up mock morgues in parking lots. Those aren’t going up for real as of now, Arwady said — but the city is talking about them again because it wants to be as prepared as possible for the quickly spreading virus.

“The fact we’re thinking about them again in serious ways, we’re talking about them, is because we cannot waste another minute of not taking this seriously,” Arwady said. “We have to do everything we can to protect our health system. In doing that, we protect you.”

Arwady and Lightfoot again urged people to stay at home as much as possible to prevent spread of the virus. Doing that can help prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, they said.


Coronavirus can be deadly, but the vast majority of cases have been mild. Those most at risk from the virus are people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of coronavirus can appear two to 14 days after a person has been exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People with no symptoms may have the virus and spread it to others.

The virus spreads between people through coughing and sneezing, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The most common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

People have also experienced body aches, nasal congestion, runny nose and sore throat, according to Harvard Medical School.

If you or someone else has difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, become confused, cannot be roused or develop a bluish face or lips, get immediate medical attention, according to the CDC.

How To Protect Yourself

The CDC only recommends those are already sick wear facemasks because they help you avoid spreading the virus.

Here’s what you can actually do to prevent getting ill:

  • The CDC and other officials have said people should wash their hands often, including before, during and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
    The CDC has a guide here for how to properly wash your hands. Remember: Wash with soap and water, scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you can’t wash your hands with soap and water, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth, with unwashed hands.
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces you touch frequently, like cellphones and light switches. Here are tips from the CDC.
  • Stay home when you’re sick and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you have to sneeze or cough with a tissue, throw it out immediately after using it, according to the CDC.

What To Do If You Think You’re Sick

Even if you’re not showing symptoms, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends people coming from high-risk countries (here’s a CDC list) self-quarantine for 14 days after returning home.

If you do have symptoms of coronavirus, contact your primary doctor or a health care facility before going in. Explain your symptoms and tell them if you’ve come into close contact with anyone with coronavirus or traveled to an area where COVID-19 is widespread (here’s a CDC list) within the last 14 days, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

From there, the experts will work with your local health department to determine what to do and if you need to be tested for coronavirus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

And, of course, if you think you’re sick with coronavirus, don’t risk exposing other people to the virus. Anyone who feels unwell has been ordered to stay home or risk getting a $500 fine.

Those with questions and concerns about coronavirus can call the Illinois Department of Public Health at 800-889-3931.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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