CA hospital, EMS surge facility prepared

By , Daily Memphian Updated: December 04, 2020 6:32 PM CT | Published: October 28, 2020 4:00 AM CT

A month ago, no one expected the field hospital in the former Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue would open.

“Now, unfortunately, it’s looking more likely,” says Dr. Richard Walker, CEO of the alternative care hospital, the $51.3 million remodel that can accommodate 400 COVID-19 patients.

It is one of two pressure valves in the city in the event COVID overwhelms hospital capacity.

Among doctors worried about rising numbers is CEO of field hospital

The other is the 100-bed EMS Surge facility in the Pipkin Building, 940 Early Maxwell Blvd., at the Fairgrounds. Its sole job is to give ambulance drivers a place to take patients, so the the ambulances can keep running.

The EMS Surge center was packed up earlier this month so Pipkin could be used for a job fair.

“At that time, that was more important for the citizens of Memphis,” said Angie Shelton Sullivan, deputy chief of emergency medical services.

“It can be readily redeployed in 24 hours. It will be an easy fix,” she said.

Redeployment is being gauged day by day, she said, as the seven-day moving average of new coronavirus cases in Shelby County has doubled from 122 on Oct. 1 to 239 on Oct. 21.

The EMS Surge center was built out in April near the drive-thru testing center at Tiger Lane.

It will be run by the City of Memphis and Memphis Fire Department.

“If you need an ambulance, you need them to be readily available,” said Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department. “If the hospitals and emergency rooms are full, you can’t make the next ambulance run without having a temporary place to put people.” 

At the rate the infection is spreading in Shelby County, its 36,000 cases could double by late November, she said. Health officials want to see the reproduction rate below 1, but it has risen to 1.24 now.

Generally, about 5% of COVID-19 patients require hospitalization, which would be about 3,600 patients.

The metro region has 3,184 hospital beds and 711 ICU beds, including surge capacity in various hospitals. In mid-October, 67% of regular beds and 57% of ICU beds were full.

Lee tours new, $51M coronavirus care facility in former CA building

Estimates on the conservative end of the local Health Department modeling suggest 370 COVID-19 patients will be in the hospital on Christmas Day.

Monday night, 294 COVID patients were hospitalized in the metro region, including 117 at Methodist, the largest number.

Dr. Jeff Warren, a member of the Memphis City Council and the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force, says the situation could become dire in four to six weeks.

“People die when the hospital systems are overwhelmed,” Warren said.

The alternate care hospital, one of only two in Tennessee that the state funds and controls, can be fully staffed in 10 days, Walker said.

“The EMS Surge center is more agile and will open first while we are preparing the alternative site,” he said.

“It will be a temporary place, think minutes to hours, while we wait for a hospital bed to become available.”

It will accommodate people with minor injuries or illnesses, Haushalter said.

“People in car crashes would not be taken there if it is not safe to do so. It would be for things like sprained ankles or other minor care issues,” she said. “The alternative care center will accommodate only COVID patients, taking pressure off hospitals for people who may still be on oxygen or otherwise too sick to go home.”

“It’s like two ends of a funnel,” Walker said. “One is to help get people into the hospital. The other is to clear space in the hospital for sicker COVID patients or other patients – heart attacks, strokes, sepsis – all these things have to get into acute care in the hospital.” 

The cleared-out Pipkin Building illustrates what happened across the nation when alternative care centers were built in stadiums, arena or malls and returned to their normal purpose when codes were relaxed for public gatherings and then had to be converted back.

“That is one of the advantages of The Commercial Appeal building. It is more to build, but a better investment over the long haul,” Walker said.

The state also opened an alternative care center in Nashville. Functional exercises were run at both facilities in the last few months to make sure they are ready.

In both cases, the state will determine when they open.

Temporary hospital could have life after pandemic

“It’s important to note these alternate care sites will be opened only if needed, and we do have a plan to staff these facilities in stages in the unforeseen event we may have to open them,” said Bill Christian, spokesman for the Tennessee Health Department.

“Staffing for the site will be done in phases. If the Memphis facility were staffed initially to treat 45 patients, it would require an estimated total of 115 staff members for 24/7 operations.”

The state, Christian said, has established eight COVID-19-specific nursing homes that will be able to accept COVID patients or will take nursing home residents to stop infections in other facilities.

The state also initiated $51 million in staffing assistance grants for hospitals beginning in early September.

The number of people hospitalized is already trending near the levels from late July and early August.

“We will now be adding flu and other normal wintertime viruses and diseases,” Walker said.

From the state’s biostatistics data, it appears the alternative care center will eventually open, he says.

“And we are so close to vaccine at this point. It looks like we have two to three good (vaccine) candidates that will be available in the next few months.”


Dr. Richard Walker Alisa Haushalter Dr. Jeff Warren Bill Christian
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


Want to comment on our stories or respond to others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only paid subscribers can add their thoughts or upvote/downvote comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here