Military Reverses Course, Will Open Field Hospitals to Coronavirus Patients

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Texas Army National Guard troops set up a field hospital in response to COVID-19 in Dallas, Texas.
Texas Army National Guard troops set up a field hospital in response to COVID-19 April 1, 2020, at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas. (Texas Air National Guard/A1C Charissa A. Menken)

Makeshift military hospitals built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Navy in New York, New Orleans and Dallas will treat patients with the novel coronavirus, the Defense Department announced Friday.

The medical centers -- at the Javits Convention Center in New York, the New Orleans Morial Convention Center and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas -- were originally expected to take patients with non-COVID-19 conditions to relieve pressure from hospitals overwhelmed by the pandemic.

But the DoD, responding to a Federal Emergency Management Agency request, agreed to accept COVID-19 patients, officials said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that the change is the result of a request he made of President Donald Trump in a phone call Thursday night.

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"It's a big deal for us" to have the Javits Center take in coronavirus-positive patients, Cuomo said at a news conference Friday.

"Federal agencies were not eager to do it," but they came around after he spoke to Trump about the crisis in the city, he added.

The locations will treat recovering COVID-19 patients and "low-acuity patients" -- those who are ill but whose symptoms don't require intensive or emergency care. All patients will be screened first at a local hospital, the DoD said.

In addition to the changes at the field hospitals, the Navy is changing its procedures for screening patients at its hospital ship, USNS Comfort, which will continue to see only non-COVID-19 patients needing hospital care.

According to the DoD, patients will now get temperature checks and complete a questionnaire pier-side before they are admitted to the ship. The Navy had been requiring evidence of a negative COVID-19 test before admitting them -- a belabored process that left 98% of the ship's 1,000 beds empty as of Thursday.

Defense Department officials said the "assistance will further unburden the local hospital and ambulance systems in these areas, allowing them to focus on the more serious COVID-19 cases."

They added that force health protection remains a top priority, adding that medical personnel will have face shields, masks and other personal protective equipment needed to treat contagious patients.

"We understand that introducing COVID-19 positive patients into the [federal medical station] environments elevates the risk of transmission to other patients and our medical providers," DoD officials said in a release. "This decision was risk-informed and made to ensure that DoD can continue to provide these local communities the type of medical care they most need."

Personnel from the 531st Army Field Hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 9th Hospital Center at Fort Hood, Texas, are deployed to the Javits Center in New York.

The 627th Field Hospital from Fort Carson, Colorado, and 47th Combat Support Hospital from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, have been dispatched to Seattle to construct a field hospital.

Both the convention centers in New Orleans and Dallas will be used as Navy expeditionary medical facilities.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. has seen nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 6,069 deaths.

Cuomo said the number of COVID-positive cases in New York State had passed 100,000 Friday, by far the most in the nation, and had more than 2,400 deaths from the virus.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patriciankime@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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