Health Care

As cases surge, Vermont National Guard hurries to rebuild field hospital

Soldiers and airmen from the Vermont National Guard construct a 200-bed Alternate Healthcare Facility at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction on Thursday. The facility will offer overflow beds for non-Covid-19 patients. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

ESSEX JUNCTION — Vermont National Guard members are rebuilding the field hospital at the Champlain Valley Expo, as surging Covid cases raise concerns of strained hospital capacity in the coming weeks.

In early April, the Guard designed and constructed the 250-bed field hospital at a rapid pace, finishing the project in a matter of days. The facility served about two dozen patients in total, but by mid-summer, when case numbers had leveled, it was taken down. 

Now, as coronavirus cases in Vermont continue to break records, the state is again planning for an increased demand for hospital beds — and the surge facility is returning to the Expo.

“It feels like déjà vu,” said Mathew Lehman, a civil engineer with the Vermont Air National Guard, as he looked out over the Guard members working in the Exposition Center on Thursday. Just hours into the construction, the team of 35 Guard members had already put up much of the facility’s plywood walling. Lehman said it felt as though he was walking through the same hallways that were constructed in April. 

And they are. The Guard kept all the materials in storage nearby, ready to rebuild at a moment’s notice. “It’s the exact same,” Lehman said. “It’s the same sinks, the same wood, a lot of the same electrical, plumbing materials.” 

When Lehman, the lead engineer on the project, got the call last Friday to begin construction on the surge site, plans moved quickly. Construction began on Thursday and is scheduled for completion by Sunday, as Guard members work 10-hour shifts to get it done.

The surge site occupies two wings of the Champlain Expo, which, normally hosts events like antique shows and the Champlain Valley Fair. Now, the building will be a field hospital for 250 patients with 50-bed “pods,” each walled off and equipped with a nurse’s station and supply closet. 

One of those pods is a separate, isolated wing for Covid patients, which includes 50 ICU beds. These walls, swathed in white plastic, had been left standing since March. 

Despite the Guard’s backbreaking pace on the project, Michael Schirling, the Vermont Public Safety commissioner, told reporters on a call Thursday that the construction was “largely a precautionary step.” Cases are rising, he said, but hospital capacity is not yet urgently threatened, and the state has forecast that even when Covid hospitalizations peak, they may not max out Vermont’s ICU beds at area hospitals.

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Still, it’s a possibility. “Nationally, we’re watching other states really begin to struggle with their hospital capacity,” Schirling said. With the surge beds, Vermont would be “way out ahead.”

The Champlain Expo facility, Schirling said, “isn’t one-dimensional.” “It allows us to expand capacity for a lot of different things,” he said. The site could provide for patients with or without Covid, depending on the needs of hospitals. 

The site is just one piece of Vermont’s surge plans. “The first line of defense,” said Schirling, “is actually to execute internal surge plans.” Hospitals would increase bed capacity for Covid patients first, which would take less of a toll on staff and resources. The state is well below that point, Schirling said. Hundreds of inpatient beds remain available statewide, as well as around 40 ICU beds.

Should a spike in coronavirus case numbers change that, the Champlain Expo will take in patients and would be staffed almost fully by the National Guard. Another field hospital, at the Spartan Arena in Rutland, would serve southern Vermont, though construction has not yet been ordered at that site. “We haven’t reached a threshold where that would be necessary,” Schirling said.

More people are hospitalized with coronavirus now than in April, when the surge hospital was treating patients. But our knowledge of the virus has changed since then, Schirling said, and doctors have developed new techniques for treating the disease. “We’re seeing fewer people have longer stays in the hospital,” he said. “and fewer people moving to ventilators as a result of that.” 

Back in April, when uncertainty around the virus abounded, the field hospital design at Champlain Expo was innovative; an example of “spectacular Yankee ingenuity,” said Schirling. Construction costs for field hospitals can run in the tens of millions. The state spent only $200,000 to build the Expo facility. 

“There’s a sense of pride in what we’ve been able to do,” said Mikel Arcovitch, public affairs officer for the Guard. This time around, he said, construction was running ahead of schedule.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: [email protected]

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