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Vermont National Guard Preps 'Surge' Facilities For COVID-19 Patients

People in green military clothing practice sticking needles into each others' arms.
Elodie Reed
Members of the Vermont National Guard Company C Medical 186 Brigade Support Battalion practice inserting IVs last week at their Winooski armory. They were preparing for treating a surge of COVID-19 patients.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise, Gov. Phil Scott has activated the Vermont National Guard to boost health care capacity across the state.

The countries and cities that have been hit hardest by the new coronavirus have struggled to find hospital beds for critically ill patients. Scott said he’s worried about a bed shortage in Vermont as well, and Guard members have spent the last week creating “surge” capacity in Barre, St. Albans and Burlington.

A dozen or so combat medics sat at two tables recently in an Army National Guard Armory in Winooski. Until recently, these Guard members were going about their regular lives and working in their civilian jobs.

Now, they were sticking each other with IV needles, to fine tune their vein-finding skills in advance of their latest mission.

A flag outside a window with blinds open.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
An American flag flies outside the Vermont Army National Guard armory in Winooski, where members prepared to create "surge" capacity across the state for COVID-19 patients.

Private Sophia Parker seemed entirely unfazed that her outstretched forearm was streaked with her own blood.

“It’s all good,” Parker said. “I have pretty easy veins for people to work on, and it doesn’t bother me.”

Maj. Joseph Phelan has been overseeing their preparations since last Monday morning.

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“They’re practicing IVs, which is something that UVM [Medical Center] asked us to be prepared to do,” he said.

Phelan and his unit have also been constructing a mobile clinic in which these combat medics may be asked to serve.

“So everything you might see if you were to walk into an ER or a doctor’s office is effectively what we are putting into those tents,” Phalen said.

A white tank sprayer sitting next to a wooden platform.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Husqvarna tank sprayers for disinfection were among the supplies being readied by the Guard at its Winooski armory last Friday.

That equipment includes x-rays, biomedical gear and patient waiting and holding beds. They’ve assembled the mobile unit in a parking lot outside the emergency department at the UVM Medical Center, where a team of hospital workers was running through a last-minute check list before the clinic went live on Friday.

Dawn LeBaron, vice-president of facilities at UVMMC, said the clinic will serve as a “triage area to respond to the COVID-19 rush that we want to be anticipating to handle.”

“This is to help us manage the flow that would normally come into our emergency department but probably doesn’t need to,” LeBaron said.

There’s a series of patient-intake units that look like small shipping containers, and tan and green tents on wood platforms, where healthcare workers will administer care.

A beige mobile mini trailer in front of brick buildings.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
VPR File
The mobile clinic set up in the University of Vermont Medical Center parking lot, which went live on Friday.

“It’s … part of a statewide plan to be able to accommodate the demand that would be coming into the inpatient facility, so this would be treated much like just another patient care unit for the UVM Medical Center,” LaBaron said.

LeBaron has been in her job for more than 20 years, and she said this is new to her.

"If you’re going to ask me if I’ve ever seen anything like this, the answer is, ‘No,'" she said. But she added the lessons learned during previous epidemics, like SARS in 2003, and MERS in 2012, have informed the hospital’s approach to COVID-19.

A person in a gown, gloves, face mask and face shield.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Than Moore, a physician assistant for UVMMC, spoke with co-workers Friday about how to best keep their computer uncontaminated inside their unit of the hospital's mobile clinic, which went live in the emergency room parking lot Friday.

“We did not have to go back and reinvent the wheel and create these plans,” LeBaron said. “We had to put them on steroids if you will, and really fast-forward them.” 

Those plans also include overflow capacity for hospitals at an auditorium in Barre, an athletic facility in St. Albans, and at Patrick Gym in Burlington, where Lt. Alexander Tucci of the Vermont National Guard has been helping set up since last week.

Patrick Gym is the home court for the UVM men’s and women’s basketball teams, but the place bears little resemblance to an athletic facility now.

The court is covered in dark green rubber matting, and 50 cots are spaced evenly across the expanse. 

“From what I understand, it’s going to be people that are being tested for COVID-19, awaiting results," Tucci said. "And then if they are tested positive, they’ll be moved to what will be a negative pressure tent, kind of like a portable ICU, and then moved via ambulance to UVM."

Tucci said he hopes the hospital never has to use it. But in these disorienting times, he said it’s been nice to have a sense of purpose.

“In a situation like this, where no one really knows what the future holds, it’s really nice to be able to get up every day and contribute something,” Tucci said.

Green cots lined up in rows inside a gym.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The cots inside UVM's Patrick Gym, which is being used as one of three "surge" sites to increase the state's capacity for care of COVID-19 patients.

An official at Vermont’s COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center in Waterbury said none of the 150 total beds in Burlington, Barre and St. Albans are operational as of Tuesday. The official said the Emergency Operations Center is also “in the planning phases for more beds to eventually serve the entire state, if needed.”

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