US forced to set up emergency hospitals to ease pressure on healthcare system buckling under coronavirus strain

The US has the highest number of cases of coronavirus worldwide and is seeing its healthcare system increasingly stretched to the limit due to the pandemic

                            US forced to set up emergency hospitals to ease pressure on healthcare system buckling under coronavirus strain
(Getty Images)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. This adage is especially relevant now as the novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the United States' overburdened healthcare facilities, with officials across the country turning to mobile hospitals to handle the huge influx of patients.

There was one such operation underway inside New York City's Central Park, where trucks filled with equipment and supplies arrived to help with the construction of a 68-bed emergency hospital across Mount Sinai Hospital.

Opened on March 31, it was built through a partnership between Mount Sinai, aid organization Samaritan's Purse, and intergovernmental agencies to provide care for patients "seriously ill" with COVID-19.

Dr Elliott Tenpenny, the team leader of the field operation, said state officials had approved the plan after Mount Sinai Hospital had reached out for assistance. The field hospital will have a respiratory care unit with ICU capability, with highly-trained doctors and nurses with experience in infectious diseases deployed on a rotating basis.

The move was a necessary one as the number of novel coronavirus cases in the state continues to skyrocket.

People set up an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020, in New York City. The field hospital is the work of the Samaritan's Purse organization and will add 68 hospital beds specifically equipped to serve as a respiratory care unit and to be administered by Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

According to the live-tracking dashboard set up by John Hopkins University, New York state has been the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus in the US with over 76,000 confirmed cases — 43,000 of which are in New York City alone — and more than 1,700 deaths.

MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) spoke to Dr Stephen Murphy, Assistant Professor in Environmental Health Sciences at the Tulane University School of Public & Tropical Medicine, about the importance of such Alternate Treatment Facilities (ATF) in the country successfully battling the pandemic.

Murphy, who has 15 years of experience in public health emergency response, infectious disease outbreak response, and emergency operations in disasters, explained these ATFs are crucial in "decompressing" the hospital system and that all hospitals are now thinking along these lines.

"Strategies to increase medical surge capacity are part of every hospital's ongoing planning efforts for all hazards," he said. "In the current pandemic, these strategies are crucial for the survival of the hospital system, which is a lifeline to the community they serve."

"The foundational intent of these strategies is to decompress the system - lessen the inundation of patients to a specific hospital or entire system," he continued. "In some cases, these ATFs are being constructed in gymnasiums or convention centers or hotels, etc."

New Orleans is also building an ATF to help ease the burden on its hospitals
(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He brought up the example of the Ernest N Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, where an emergency hospital with 1,000 beds is being constructed to take in COVID-19 patients if hospitals in the city need relief.

"This strategy allows for the entire New Orleans region to discharge less acute patients who are now stable enough to recovery into this facility with proper medical oversight, which in turn allows for each hospital to regain the acute, critical care ICU beds and assets for another more severe patient," he shared. "The planning number for this specific strategy in the New Orleans area can expand to 3,000 recovery beds."

Operations within these ATFs vary from location to location, but the overall intent remains the same — decompress the healthcare system. 

Murphy explained that not all these emergency hospitals are necessarily being constructed just to treat patients with the novel coronavirus but that the overall intent remained the same, "decompressing the healthcare system."

The case, in point, is the US Navy Ship Comfort which docked in New York City earlier this week. While the city is the epicenter of the outbreak in the country, Navy medical professionals will be helping local healthcare providers by offering care to non-COVID-19 patients.

"While in New York, the ship will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals, and will provide a full spectrum of medical care to include general surgeries, critical care and ward care for adults. This will allow local health professionals to focus on treating COVID-19 patients and for shore-based hospitals to use their intensive care units and ventilators for those patients," said Admiral John Mustin, vice commander, US Fleet Forces Command, in a statement.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to members of the press after the arrival of the USNS Comfort hospital to Pier 90 on the Hudson River on March 30, 2020, in New York City (Getty Images)

The ship has a crew of over 1,100 and is equipped with 12 operating rooms, hospital beds, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, digital radiology, a CAT scan, two oxygen-producing plants, and a helicopter deck, and will receive patients all 24 hours of the day.

Murphy said that, while the ship would not treat coronavirus patients, it would still "free up beds at local hospitals focused on combating the pandemic" and work towards "strategically decompressing the inundated system."

The professor conceded, however, that he did not know how many such ATFs would be required across the country and the community spread of the disease "remained challenging".

"Testing needs to continue to identify the confirmed cases and contact tracing must continue to understand additional exposure risks in communities," he stressed. " The social distancing and 'stay-at-home' orders combined with rapid case identification will assist with flattening the curve and hopefully allow the hospitals to themselves recover and be better positioned to treat COVID-19 patients going forward."

The US has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide with over 189,000, and to put it in the rearview mirror, Murphy said people have to start taking the pandemic seriously and work to defeat it in unison.

"There remains an unfortunate reluctance to fully comply with these social distancing strategies, which results in continued transmission, cases, and hospitalizations," he said. "We are in this together and everyone's actions count. No one likes to stay at home, but we all can do this and make a difference."

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