The Army hospital established inside the Javits Convention Center in New York City began treating patients this week, and another hospital dispatched to Seattle plans to receive its first patients early next week, but neither plan to treat coronavirus cases.
Instead, the intent is to take in non-coronavirus cases to relieve pressure from local hospitals. The Army’s focus on medical cases not related to the pandemic may prove limiting, as Navy hospital ships dispatched to New York and Los Angeles have remained mostly vacant and have similar referral policies.
The Army’s 627th Hospital Center was sent from Fort Carson, Colorado, to set up a 250-bed facility at CenturyLink Center in Seattle, which is being contracted for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said hospital center commander Col. Hope Williamson-Younce on Thursday.
The set up in Seattle includes N-95 masks for the staff and 60 beds with ventilators. And though there has been an urgent need for more ventilators in civilian hospitals to treat the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, the ad-hoc facility will require those for non-COVID needs.
The decision to restrict the Army hospital to non-COVID-19 patients is one made by Pentagon policymakers, Williamson-Younce said, but even patients not ill from the current pandemic can require ventilators, she added.
“We don’t know what that patient load will be from the surrounding hospitals," explained Williamson-Younce, who is nurse practitioner by training. "Just to give you a picture here, we could receive patients that will have respiratory difficulty or some other kind of disease state that requires a ventilator, so we have to be prepared to provide that care.”
COVID-19 patients are also better served at civilian hospitals where the environment is more controlled than an expeditionary field hospital, according to Williamson-Younce.
“However, we will do the screening here at the door to make sure we do not receive COVID-19 patients," she added. "If we do, by chance, we are prepared to isolate those patients ... and get them back in our fixed facilities.”
Screening includes a CDC questionnaire and temperature readings with thermometers.
Commanders involved in the 531st Hospital Center deployment from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to New York City, have made similar remarks, stating that their hospitals will take trauma and emergency patients who the local hospitals simply won’t have time to handle.
The 531st, as well as the 9th Hospital Center from Fort Hood, Texas, are staffing 750 beds at the Javits Center in Manhattan, an Army release stated. The hospitals have intensive care units, x-ray departments, pharmacies and operating rooms.
Navy Times reported Thursday that the USNS hospital ships Mercy and Comfort have treated fewer than 20 patients combined, according to the vessels’ commanding officers. The ships can accommodate 1,000 hospital beds, but they aren’t taking walk-in patients. Instead, cases must be screened and referred from local hospitals.
A similar referral process will play out with the Army hospitals.
Soldiers in Seattle are right now working with civilian hospitals, the Department of Health and FEMA to figure out the referral process for patients from local hospitals, according to Lt. Col. Jason Hughes, who is with the 627th Hospital Center in Seattle.
“Now, whether the hospitals off-load those patients to us immediately, that remains to be seen," Hughes said. "We’ll see what the network can handle, but we’ll be ready to go early next week.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.