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With NATO in town, hospitals brace for bioterrorism

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Crain's Chicago Business
by Brigid Sweeney

While many downtown office workers worry about commuting headaches during the NATO summit, two Chicago hospital systems are prepared for far worse possibilities.


The University of Chicago Medical Center and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System will both have decontamination areas set up outside their buildings to treat victims of potential bioterrorist attacks, in addition to general medical tents.


"What we have heard from some of the other host cities is that you'll get a number of patients who are referred to as the 'walking well' who think they've been contaminated but haven't," said Krista Curell, the vice president of risk management at University of Chicago Medical Center.


Regardless of whether the threat is real, any patient who claims to have been exposed to biological agents will be treated in the hospital's decontamination tent or trailer before they are allowed to enter the emergency room, Ms. Curell said. The area will be staffed by a so-called Code Orange team of medical professionals who have been trained in emergency-response procedures.

Cook County Hospitals spokeswoman Marisa Kollias said extra medical and decontamination tents will also be set up outside John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital on the West Side, and the same protocol will be followed before admitting patients to the emergency room.


The tents will resemble the medical tents set up during the Chicago marathon, and despite the ominous sound of "decontamination areas," the medical staff expects to mostly treat minor symptoms such as heat exhaustion, dehydration and bumps and bruises, Ms. Kollias said.


She said the hospital was not disclosing the cost of the tents or the number of medical staff involved, but said the emergency-response procedures were "not unprecedented."


Both hospital systems will have extra doctors on call inside the hospitals, as well.


The University of Chicago will establish a command center at 7 a.m. on Saturday that will be staffed around the clock through 7 a.m. Tuesday, with four extra attending physicians in the adult and pediatric emergency departments. More doctors will also be on call throughout the weekend.


The Cook County Health and Hospital System is the host hospital system during the summit, which means it will assume "first responder" duties in the event of an emergency, Ms. Kollias said. Though Mercy Hospital & Medical Center is closer to McCormick Place, Cook County's Stroger Hospital is the closest hospital with a level 1 trauma center, which provides the highest level of surgical care.


"A number of our medical staff has extensive experience in emergency situations," Ms. Kollias said. "Some of our trauma surgeons were in New York on 9/11."


Beyond preparing to provide emergency care, the hospitals also must deal with traffic snarls as a result of road closures during the summit.


"The extreme preparation difficulty is the transportation concerns," said Ms. Curell, calling the scenario reminiscent of the major snowstorm in February 2011, when essential medical staff had a hard time getting to work.


At Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chief of Staff Gary Noskin sent a memo to staff warning about possible street closures with little notice. "We have been informed that both Ohio and Ontario streets to and from East Fairbanks Court will be key travel thoroughfares" for motorcades, he wrote, and "could result in delays of up to several hours."


Pregnant women who need to get to the hospital may need to find alternate routes or even another health care provider, the memo said.



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