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Trinity Hospital reopening labor ward as Mercy plans to close, but South Side women are still stuck in a birthing ‘desert’

Nurses Nina Garcia, from left, Ana Cruz and Barbara West work on a new bulletin board as they help set up the obstetrics unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on August, 12, 2020. The hospital is reactivating the labor and delivery unit after it was closed for COVID-19 in March.

Nurses Nina Garcia, from left, Ana Cruz and Barbara West work on a new bulletin board as they help set up the obstetrics unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on August, 12, 2020. The hospital is reactivating the labor and delivery unit after it was closed for COVID-19 in March. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

A South Side hospital will reopen its labor ward next week, adding 35 beds to a community still facing a dearth of options amid the planned closure of one of its few hospitals that treat pregnant women.

Advocate Trinity Hospital will open its labor and delivery services Monday, after temporarily closing them March 31 to handle an influx of patients amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the interim, the hospital, located in Calumet Heights, redirected patients to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn and Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest — both about a 30-minute drive from Trinity.

”We are very excited to come back,” said Dakisha Lewis, head of obstetric services at Trinity. “Our patients have been asking for it.” Already, she has a Tuesday cesarean section on the schedule, bringing in a patient who would have been sent elsewhere otherwise.

The hospital will resume treating emergency and planned births, and reopen the nursery and other obstetric and gynecological services. Doctors, neonatologists and nurse practitioners who were deployed to other hospitals will return.

Nurses reorganize medical equipment in patient care areas to set up the OB-GYN unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 12, 2020.

Nurses reorganize medical equipment in patient care areas to set up the OB-GYN unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 12, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

Even before COVID-19, Chicago-area hospitals were closing obstetric units, citing competition with bigger hospitals and too low a patient count to operate an entire unit. Some said it was difficult to make money from labor and delivery units because women tend to be on Medicaid more than men.

But the pandemic has only amplified health disparities and challenges in maternal health.

During COVID-19, some hospitals closed their labor wards as they experienced an influx of patients. St. Bernard Hospital in Englewood announced it would suspend deliveries in April to make room for COVID-19 patients. Women in labor who would be seen at St. Bernard were transferred instead to Mercy Hospital & Medical Center in Bronzeville.

In July, Mercy itself announced plans to close entirely next year. The announcement followed a decision not to merge by Mercy, Trinity, South Shore and St. Bernard hospitals after state lawmakers failed to set aside funding for the deal.

That will leave Trinity, Roseland Community Hospital and the University of Chicago Medical Center as the sole hospitals on the South Side for women giving birth. Joy West, an OB-GYN at Roseland Community Hospital, did her residency training at Mercy. She said she was disheartened to hear of its planned closing. Already, she noted, the options for women are limited.

Valdemar Duran, left, and his father, Lauro Duran, paint patient rooms for the OB-GYN unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 12, 2020.

Valdemar Duran, left, and his father, Lauro Duran, paint patient rooms for the OB-GYN unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 12, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

“I’m hoping that there will be some sort of Hail Mary to save the hospital,” she said. “Right now, COVID is really just pulling the veil back on the disparities in health care, especially maternal care. COVID came at a time when we were already struggling with high maternal mortality and closures of labor and delivery units, and this is kind of putting the last nail in the coffin.”

In the hopes of remedying some of those issues, lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood introduced the Maternal Health Pandemic Response Act on Tuesday, which would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect and post data related to COVID-19 and pregnancy, broken down by race, ethnicity and state.

It also would require at least one COVID-19 vaccine be developed for use in pregnancy and lactation, something that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said is needed. The bill also defines anti-racist care, and mandates a report from the Government Accountability Office after COVID-19 ends on maternal care during the pandemic.

Nurses organize medical equipment in patient care areas for the OB-GYN unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 12, 2020.

Nurses organize medical equipment in patient care areas for the OB-GYN unit at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on Aug. 12, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

State Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, said the Trinity reopening is “great news,” and that the closures have been devastating. She and other advocates have been working on plans to potentially keep it open.

Hunter said she has heard from doctors concerned about the city’s maternal health and residents who are upset.

“They were born there, their children were born there, their grandchildren born there,” she said. “So it is clearly a major vehicle in our community.”

The lack of options for pregnant women means they have to travel far beyond where they live to seek prenatal care, and to deliver. With the added complications of a pandemic, people may be unable to secure safe transportation, meaning they might miss prenatal appointments, which are vital to a healthy pregnancy.

Many women seek prenatal care at community health centers, closer to their home. For some, their first visit to a hospital might be to deliver, and some arrive without any transferred medical records — meaning doctors and nurses treat them without knowledge of potential complications.

The lack of options may affect women already at risk; Black moms in Illinois are six times more likely to die from pregnancy-related conditions. Many women are dying from preventable causes within a year of giving birth, an issue the Illinois Department of Public Health has been studying.

COVID-19 complicates things even further; recent data from the health department showed that Black and Latina women make up more than 70% of known cases in Illinois of pregnant women with COVID-19.

All of these factors add concern for the health of pregnant women and their babies.

As co-founder of Black Girls Break Bread, a nonprofit geared toward empowering Black women and girls, Jessica Davenport-Williams has closely monitored the availability of maternal health services. She said it’s good news that Trinity plans to reopen, but noted that this adds just 35 beds for women in an area where thousands need care.

“It’s good news that Trinity is planning to reopen its labor and delivery unit. However, (with) Mercy, that’s an entire hospital that’s closing,” she said. “So that cripples the South Side in a major way.”

She added, “It’s still a desert.”

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