On an early March day at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergency department at the University of Chicago Medical Center teemed with patients.
But many weren't there because of the coronavirus. They were there because they'd been shot.
Gunshot victims account for most of the 2,600 adult trauma patients a year who come to this hospital on the city's sprawling South Side. And the pandemic hasn't dampened the flow.
"The visible virus of violence continues unabated," said trauma chief Dr. Selwyn Rogers Jr.
The Chicago hospital's experience mirrors what's happening at other metropolitan trauma units around the nation, where the number of patients seeking care for injuries caused by what's known as penetrating trauma — gunshot wounds or stabbings — appear to be holding steady, straining hospitals already busy fighting COVID-19.
The Hyde Park hospital's Level 1 trauma center has been bustling since it launched in May 2018. On that day in March, about a half-dozen gowned staffers in the unit — which is separated from the rest of the ED by a set of double doors — hurriedly worked on a patient who had just been brought in through the ambulance bay.
"We pretty much opened and became one of the busiest trauma centers in the city," Rogers said.
Much of that is because of its location, he said. The South Side of Chicago is home to busy expressways and vast manufacturing plants, but also some of the most violent neighborhoods in the city. About a third of the University of Chicago Medicine's adult trauma patients are gunshot victims, Rogers said.
The volume has remained steady despite the city and state issuing a stay-at-home order March 21 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, Rogers said, domestic violence incidents appear to be on the rise as people shelter in place.
"It's not surprising that penetrating trauma has kind of stayed stable," said Dr. Kenji Inaba, trauma chief for the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. "One could surmise there's a lot of potential for this: people being at home, in close contact with others. There's still potential for that human-on-human interaction to occur."