How St. Alexius became a pioneer in COVID-19 treatment after second U.S. case landed there

  • Michael Handler, chief medical officer of Amita St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, said both excitement and anxiety came with treating the state's first and country's second COVID-19 patient.

    Michael Handler, chief medical officer of Amita St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, said both excitement and anxiety came with treating the state's first and country's second COVID-19 patient. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Handler, chief medical officer of Amita St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, said the hospital's staff played an important role last year in the medical understanding of how to treat patients infected with COVID-19. The hospital treated just the second case of the coronavirus in the U.S.

    Michael Handler, chief medical officer of Amita St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, said the hospital's staff played an important role last year in the medical understanding of how to treat patients infected with COVID-19. The hospital treated just the second case of the coronavirus in the U.S. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/24/2021 9:01 AM

A year ago, Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates announced it was treating the first confirmed COVID-19 patient in Illinois -- and just the second in the nation.

The patient, a Chicago woman in her 60s who brought the virus home after traveling to Wuhan, China, represented other firsts: the first American case east of the Mississippi River and, when her husband later was diagnosed, the first known instance of person-to-person transmission in the U.S.

 

Michael Handler, chief medical officer at St. Alexius, recalls those first days and the weeks that followed as a time of both excitement and anxiety.

"I'm very proud of the contributions we made to the country and to the world," Handler said. "It's been one of the most amazing experiences of my career, being at the ground floor of setting the standards of how to treat this disease."

The significance he sees when looking back today is in stark contrast to the casual way he first learned St. Alexius was at the center of a soon-to-be global pandemic.

"I was in my office," he said. "A physician came in and said, 'Hey, Mike, I think we have one of those coronavirus cases here.' And I was like, 'What?!'"

A test soon confirmed that suspicion, and a news conference to announce the diagnosis was held the next day, Jan. 24.

The woman arrived at O'Hare International Airport on Jan. 13, 2020, after visiting family in China. She began developing symptoms about three or four days later. Her regular physician, who was on staff at St. Alexius, referred her to the emergency department there after appropriate screening.

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When her husband later developed symptoms, he joined her in isolation at St. Alexius, becoming the sixth confirmed of COVID-19 case in the country.

So little was known about COVID-19 at the time, and too much remains unknown today about who is likely to suffer the most severe symptoms, Handler said. But even then the St. Alexius staff knew how contagious the virus is.

The medical center has never experienced a PPE shortage, Handler said, and staff members with any level of contact with the two patients were well-protected.

What wasn't as well-known at that time was the importance of wearing masks anywhere in a medical setting, he said. But St. Alexius adopted the current standards as quickly as anyone, Handler said, and it's believed all staff members who've contracted COVID-19 in the past year did so outside their work environment.

The importance of the pioneering work in coronavirus treatment done at St. Alexius last winter isn't recognized by just the hospital. The public health departments of Illinois, Cook County and Chicago, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all set up temporary office space in the hospital's basement for weeks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"That was something I'll never forget," Handler said. "It was fascinating, invigorating, exciting."

St. Alexius would later be among the first facilities to implement the practice of temporarily turning coronavirus patients face down to alleviate breathing problems.

As for the first couple treated at St. Alexius, they were discharged on Feb. 7 but remained under observation by health authorities while in home isolation for just over another week. Handler said it's unlikely they would have been kept in the hospital today as long as they were a year ago.

"We would have known with a lot more certainty how to manage them," he said.

A year ago, Handler said he would have been surprised to learn that even one proven vaccine would be developed before the end of 2020, much less two. He said everyone should be vaccinated as soon as doses are able but also should continue with other safety protocols, because it's unclear whether a vaccinated person might still be able to pass on the virus.

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