Preparedness

Midwest Hospitals Report Cold-Weather-Related Injuries Days Before Arctic Blast Hits

The record low temperatures spurred dire warnings from meteorologists, widespread closures of schools and businesses and led to a disaster proclamation from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said a wide variety of state resources will be available to help communities affected by the winter storms and bitter cold weather.

by Georgette Braun, Rockford Register Star, Ill. / January 30, 2019
A commuter arrives at Metra Western Avenue station, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Chicago. The extreme cold and record-breaking temperatures are crawling into a swath of states spanning from North Dakota to Missouri and into Ohio after a powerful snowstorm pounded the region earlier this week. AP/Kiichiro Sato

(TNS) — Even before the worst of the polar vortex gripped the Midwest, emergency rooms here already had treated several patients with cold-weather-related injuries.

Now, the arctic air that's enveloping the Rock River Valley gets truly dangerous with wind chill values on Wednesday that could plummet as low as 54 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service.

The record low temperatures spurred dire warnings from meteorologists, widespread closures of schools and businesses and led to a disaster proclamation from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said a wide variety of state resources will be available to help communities affected by the winter storms and bitter cold weather.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said frostbite could set in on exposed skin within 10 to 15 minutes in the expected cold.

"Stay home and stay out of the elements," said Dr. John Pakiela, a physician at Mercyhealth's Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic-Rockton who also accompanies paramedics on the most serious emergency calls.

Several patients at the hospital had broken bones Tuesday after falling on ice. Some experienced chest pain or shortness of breath after shoveling snow. Others were frostbitten, especially on fingers, toes and noses. And several were poisoned with carbon monoxide after furnaces or dryer vents became blocked by snow or residents were warming up cars for long periods in closed garages. This all before the coldest temperatures arrived.

"We worry about the elderly and very young and homeless," especially in subzero temperatures, Pakiela said.

At OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center's emergency room on Monday, an 80-year-old man who broke an ankle when he slipped and fell while using a snow-blower was treated.

If you have to leave the house Wednesday, dress in layers, Pakiela said. And wear hats, gloves and boots. Seek medical attention right away if you feel tingling or numbness especially in extremities like the tip of the nose, ears, fingers, toes.

"Less blood flows" in those areas, he said. "You're more at risk if those are not covered appropriately," Pakiela said.

Staying warm

Several nonprofits and government buildings will be open as emergency warming centers to help provide reprieve from the cold.

SecondFirst Church in the city's downtown announced Monday that it would open its doors for Rockford Overnight Cafe from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day through Friday morning. Warm overnight accommodations as well as hot chocolate and coffee will be available. Four people attended Monday night, said the Rev. Rebecca White Newgren.

"Of course, we are thinking about the homeless, but we're also thinking about people who just lost their heat. At 9 p.m., unless you have a super-connected family, well, you can't go home," she said.

Several schools in the area, including Rockford Public Schools, will be closed for Wednesday and Thursday. Courthouses in Winnebago and Boone counties are also closed. Among many business closings is that of CherryVale Mall in Cherry Valley, which closed at 5 p.m. Tuesday and will reopen at noon Thursday.

ComEd is staffing its command center in Oak Brook through Wednesday to be able to more quickly respond to any cold-weather emergencies in the region, said external affairs manager George Gaulrapp. "The cold weather can affect equipment," he said.

The subzero temperatures can keep vehicles from starting, prompting a rush for fuel-line antifreeze such as HEET. Some gas stations and a major discount store in Rockford were sold out of the product early Tuesday.

Allen Heating and Cooling in Rockford has seen a spike in emergency calls for service during the cold snap, owner Tom Howe said. It's essential that homeowners have their furnaces checked at least once a year, he said.

"Just like your car needs an oil change every 3,000 miles, your furnace needs a tuneup and maintenance done on it every year."

Howe advises homeowners to make sure their furnace filters are clean to ensure proper air flow in the system, try not to adjust thermostats to extreme temperatures, and turn down humidifiers to avoid getting ice buildup on windows.

Staff writer Ken DeCoster contributed. Jerry Nowicki of Capitol News Illinois contributed.

Georgette Braun: 815-987-1331; gbraun@rrstar.com; @GeorgetteBraun

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