As you may know, FHN President and CEO Mark Gridley makes a weekly video to update our communities on FHN’s preparations and readiness for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic. On April 3, he welcomed two of FHN’s physician leaders to answer some of the public’s most frequently asked questions.


FHN Chief Physician Executive James Kolka, DO, is an emergency medicine specialist and our Chief Infectious Disease Physician Robert Geller, MD, MS, FACP, FIDSA, is FHN’s nationally-recognized infectious disease specialist. (Answers here are edited and summarized for length; you can see the doctors’ full answers in the video.)


What changes have occurred at FHN to prepare for an increase in COVID-19 patients?


Gridley: We’ve continued to train and plan, and we have doubled down on our conservation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) so we will be able to continue to protect our patients and staff through any event.


We have used the MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) tent in the hospital’s parking lot for several training exercises, and it is now our drive-through testing site. If we experience an influx of COVID-19 patients, we will use the tent for testing and triaging patients.


Is it busy at FHN Memorial Hospital?


Gridley: As part of our COVID-19 readiness, we have cancelled all elective procedures at the hospital, so there aren’t as many people in the hospital as usual. But we are fully staffed and ready for any kind of situation. If you have an emergent need, like a heart attack or stroke, we are still here to take care of you.


Are there a lot of flu patients at the hospital this year?


Gridley: Yes, we have had a busy season for the flu and other respiratory diseases. The flu is very contagious, so we have experience in the kind of thorough cleaning that’s needed to stop the novel coronavirus.


What should people do if they don’t feel well but aren’t sure if they might have COVID-19 or something else?


Gridley: FHN has a free online COVID-19 symptom checker to help you figure out if your symptoms match those of COVID-19. It is available on our website, www.fhn.org/coronavirus.


We also have a coronavirus hotline that you can call if you have symptoms indicating COVID-19 or if you have questions. The hotline number is 815-599-6412, and it is available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each weekday.


Of course, we always tell our patients that the best first step is to call your healthcare provider’s office with any questions or concerns. Our provider offices in Freeport and throughout northwest Illinois are all observing COVID-19 precautions, so they are safe to visit – just call your provider first.


How is FHN staying current on all of the fast-changing news about COVID-19?


Kolka: Our physicians and administration are monitoring all news from a variety of resources, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the Illinois Hospital Association to new information from other specialists in places like New York, California, and Italy. We are getting a lot of information each day about ways to help us control the spread of the virus and treat patients.


How are providers preparing for an increase in COVID-19 patients?


Kolka: Though we are lucky and haven’t experienced a surge yet, we all are trained and prepared and ready. The hospital has an Incident Command system and we are following all of the federal guidelines in planning so that we’ll be ready if there is a large increase in patients.


Some people get upset when they think they have COVID-19 and can’t get tested. Why can’t they get tested?


Kolka: Unfortunately, we are still dealing with a shortage of tests and testing materials. As long as that shortage continues, we must reserve testing for people who are at high risk of experiencing dangerous complications of COVID-19.


If someone is sent home, either after a test or consultation with a provider, and asked to self-quarantine, does this mean that they have COVID-19?


Kolka:


No. It could be COVID-19, or one of the other five known coronaviruses, or the flu. We can’t be sure without the test. So we advise patients who are experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days.


Why are people asked to stay home for 14 days?


Kolka: One of the things we have learned about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus is that it has a 14-day asymptomatic viral shedding period. What that means is that you can have the virus and be “shedding,” or spreading it, for 14 days before you experience any symptoms.


For contrast, influenza is very contagious, and it has a 3-day asymptomatic viral shedding period. That means that if you’re carrying the COVID-19 virus, you have four times the exposure to other people – 14 days as opposed to 3 days.


Can people have visitors when they are quarantined as long as they themselves don’t leave home?


Kolka: We’d prefer that people in quarantine avoid having visitors; it’s not advisable, because of how easy it is to spread this virus.


If you must have visitors, make sure to strictly follow the guidelines: Avoid contact and maintain social distancing, cover your cough, and wash your hands frequently.


Why do some people get so sick and even die and others may not even know they have COVID-19?


Kolka: About 80 to 90 percent of the people who contract COVID-19 have mild or even no symptoms and are fine.


COVID-19 attacks the lungs, and for some people it causes a very intense inflammatory response. That response can be so severe that the patient would need to be intubated to help him or her breathe. Those are the cases you hear about.


How is it possible that someone could have COVID-19 and not even know it?


Kolka: When the COVID-19 virus gets into your body, it settles in the lining of your lungs. About 90 percent of people, young people and healthy people, will have some mild symptoms – maybe a fever or a cough – and be fine.


We’ve learned a lot about the virus and how to treat it from the doctors who have been on the front lines. We have had a number of COVID-19 patients, and were able to offer them cutting-edge treatment, because we’re learning more every day. 100 percent of our COVID-19 patients got better.


What makes COVID-19 different from seasonal flu?


Geller: COVID-19 is much more contagious than influenza, and if you get it, the complications can be very dangerous, and even fatal. That said, though, the majority of the people who get COVID-19 are going to still feel well, and be fine.


How is COVID-19 spread?


Geller: It’s very easy to spread, like the flu, through coughs and sneezes. That’s why it’s so important to wash your hands: If you cough or sneeze into your hand and touch a doorknob or another surface, you’ve contaminated that surface. The virus spreads when someone else touches that surface and touches their eyes or mouth.


Can you get COVID-19 from packages delivered to your house or food delivery?


Geller: Yes, you can. To be safe, you should assume that everyone, including the delivery person, might have COVID-19.


If you get a delivery to your home, leave the box outside or take it outside and open it up. Empty the box carefully and assume there are COVID-19 germs on that box.


Most importantly, always, always, always wash your hands. You have to wash your hands at each step, because you don’t want to bring those germs in. You can use soap and water or hand sanitizer, but the most important thing is to wash your hands.


How easy is it to kill the virus before it enters your body?


Geller: It’s very easy to kill this virus. Kill it by washing your hands properly with soap and water or using hand sanitizer, and you can kill it on surfaces with a bleach solution or other cleaning product.


Why and how is COVID-19 spreading so fast?


Geller: Because COVID-19 is a new, “novel” coronavirus, no one has basic immunity or “herd immunity” against it. This is a brand-new virus, and nobody has seen it before.


What is herd immunity and why shouldn’t people have “coronavirus parties” like some used to have “measles” parties to expose their kids to the disease so they would catch them and then be immune?


Geller: Herd immunity is when enough people in a society become immune to a germ to make it not so contagious.


You definitely shouldn’t have “coronavirus parties” because COVID-19 is more potent and dangerous. It would be irresponsible to intentionally “share” a disease that could kill you.


Are there any vaccines yet that might help people become immune to COVID-19?


Geller: Unfortunately, no. We have many brilliant people working on possible vaccines, but realistically, our current best estimate is that it will be a year to a year and a half before we have a vaccine for this virus.


What else would you like to tell the community?


Gridley: First, we would like to thank all of the people who have reached out with offers to help, with food or supplies. We also are making a point to thank all of the essential people who keep us going with our #NWILThanks campaign. You can download a printable sheet on our website that you can decorate or just write the name of someone for whom you are thankful. Share it with us on our Facebook page (Facebook.com/FHNhealth), and we’ll share it with everyone in the community!