New pop-up hospital ready to relieve crowded COVID-19 ERs

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday toured the 250-bed medical station taking shape inside the Meadowlands Exposition Center, designed to play a key role in the state’s COVID-19 response by easing pressure on mainline hospitals as they begin to see an expected surge in patients needing critical care.

Accompanied by federal and state emergency management officials, Murphy viewed pods of patient rooms, each separated by thin, pre-fab walls and heavy cloth sheets, and equipped with a simple bed — more like a cot — an exposed toilet and a folding chair.

After congratulating those involved in constructing the pop-up facility, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor took note of its Spartan look.

“So each one of these look like they’re kitted out with a basic — very basic — set here,” he said.

In fact, the station still looks painfully bare. It’s taken the State Police, Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard about a week to build this first of three such planned locations, which will add a total of 1,000 beds for so-called low-acuity patients.

Officials say the Secaucus facility will have a “soft opening” next week, and a second medical station with 500 planned beds, will come on line at the convention center in Edison on April 8. A third location, with 250 beds at the Atlantic City Convention Center, is scheduled to be “up and ready” on April 14,” according to Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the State Police.

“This site will be a valuable resource for our Northern New Jersey hospitals who are already experiencing increased demands for care,” state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said during Murphy’s daily press briefing on the COVID-19 crisis, where it was announced that the total number of positive cases in New Jersey now tops 25,500 people, with 537 fatalities.

The Secaucus facility is not meant to handle COVID-19 patients, who will continue to be treated at acute-care hospitals. Instead it and the other FEMA installations are part of a strategy to dedicate more critical care beds for those with severe symptoms of the coronavirus at the hospitals already treating them.

“This site will take individuals with lower-acuity from the surrounding hospitals, so these hospitals have more space to care for the critically ill,” Persichilli said.

At the same time, New Jersey is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to renovate closed hospitals and medical wings, part of an effort to boost the state’s complement of critical care beds by 2,000 ahead of the projected surge. In addition, hospitals have also made internal moves to increase the proportion of their beds that are devoted to critical COVID-19 patients.

Officials are predicting the state’s 71 acute care hospitals are projected to hit ICU bed capacity by mid-April.

Persichilli has reported in recent days that hospitals in the north — overwhelmed by demand — have had to temporarily divert critically-ill patients to other medical centers. She reported seven such occasions Wednesday and four on Thursday, noting that they occurred at different facilities each night.

Decisions about how patients get moved from one hospital to another in North Jersey are being coordinated at University Hospital in Newark, the designated top-level trauma center in that part of the state.

Beyond doctors, nurses and other care personnel, Persichilli said that the range of services available at the pop-up facilities will mimic those at a regular hospital for non-critical patients, ranging from radiology, pharmacy and lab services. It will also be equipped to provide care to anyone who develops COVID-19 during a stay.

“We’re contracting for the workers we’re going to need, the additional supplies from the DOH,” Murphy said during the Secaucus tour. “This is marathon.”

According to Lt. Col. David Park, the commander of the Philadelphia District for the Army Corps of Engineers, the medical staff, mostly drawn from the National Guard, will be arriving Sunday. Persichilli said staffing for the facility is also coming from volunteers and temporary agencies.

“It’s supposed to be almost a step-down facility,” Park said. “Non-COVID patients on the mend from other operational hospitals, will be relayed or transferred to this location.”

Meanwhile Thursday, questions were raised about the sufficiency of the state’s overall stock of medical supplies, including PPE , or personal protective equipment, like N95 masks for health-care workers and ventilators for severely ill COVID-19 patients.

Murphy has asked for another 1,650 ventilators from the federal stockpile, but the administration of President Donald Trump said Wednesday the stockpile’s running low.

The state Health Department is trying to prepare contingencies — training medical staff to use one ventilator for two patients, or substituting anesthesia machines for ventilators.

Given the uncertainty, the governor signed an executive order Thursday allowing Callahan to commandeer supplies of N95 masks and ventilators from private people and companies.

“While we look forward to these facilities cooperating with us in providing this equipment as needed, this order give Pat the express authority to requisition it for distribution to our acute care hospitals and other health care facilities,” Murphy said. “Needless to say, they badly need the equipment.”