How Local Hospitals And Health Departments Coordinate On Coronavirus

Mar 2, 2020

Credit DeKalb County Health Department

As the coronavirus spreads, local health departments and hospitals are monitoring the situation and making plans. 

To keep abreast of the situation, municipalities are in constant contact with their counterparts across the state. Lisa Gonzalez, Public Health Administrator for the DeKalb County Health Department, explains. 

“We have the Region 1 Health Departments which are the 9 counties in northwest Illinois, but we also work with Chicago region health departments and statewide health departments as well," she said. 

These communications take many forms, including conference calls and e-mail blasts.  And though coronavirus is new to Illinois, Gonzalez said tracking cases isn’t that different from other epidemics.

“Communication is fluent with hospitals, particularly their infectious control practitioners and we take the same approach whether there may be cases of measles, tuberculosis, or of the novel coronavirus, to mitigate the spread of disease,” she said. 

Northwestern Medicine runs the major hospitals in DeKalb County, and screening begins the moment a patient with symptoms comes through the door.  Dr. Bob Manam is Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Kishwaukee and Valley West Hospitals.

“Our electronic medical record is equipped with prompting questions regarding travel and then the instructions to the different urgent cares as well as our emergency room physicians are who to contact if there’s a suspected case and what isolation procedures we should do until further notice,” he said. 

As with communication, coronavirus isolation procedures match up with diseases such as tuberculosis.  Manam says if a patient is seriously ill, an isolation ward in the hospital is usually best for both care and infection control. But he notes this isn’t the only option.

“If they’re perfectly well and they’re easily available by phone, and they will follow the instructions of not leaving, then we would feel more comfortable with coordinating with the health department to isolate them at home with no visitors," he said. 

Gonzalez said most patients are quite compliant with voluntary isolation. She added that her department will work with other parties, such as a patient’s employer, to ensure patients can be isolated safely.

“So it’s really working across the board, communicating with those that need to be communicated with if necessary.” 

Manam says the one difficulty that remains is confirming that a suspect case definitively has coronavirus.

“The symptoms will be similar to many respiratory illnesses. Coughing, shortness of breath, fever, runny nose. Pretty similar to a lot of things.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with public health labs across the country to test for coronavirus, and Illinois was among the first five states to cooperate. But local health departments and hospitals stay vigilant with monitoring and isolation because the results aren’t instantaneous. For everyday prevention, Gonzalez recommends some familiar measures.

“Washing hands, avoiding touching your hands nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Stay home when you’re sick. Covering your cough or sneeze, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently, especially during flu season. Making sure that you’re doing all that," she said.  "That’s going to be your best protection against any virus this time of year or any other time of year.”

Above all, Gonzalez emphasizes all these health departments and providers are in constant contact with each other and national authorities. Thus, she says it’s important not to panic.

“Limiting travel, for example, screening those who are coming from affected areas. Those things are all in place here, and I think people need to just recognize that we’re fortunate to have a robust public health system in this country in order to be able to address this issue.” 

In the meantime, the Illinois Department of Public Health and CDC are continually updating their websites with information on the spread of coronavirus, including suspected cases and testing procedures.