At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s terrifying first wave in the spring of 2020, dozens of hospitals in high-incidence areas either planned or opened temporary, emergency field hospitals to cover anticipated demand for beds beyond the capacity of local permanent hospitals.
Chastened by images of overwhelmed health care systems in Northern Italy and other hard-hit areas,1 the planners used available modeling tools and estimates for projecting maximum potential need in worst-case scenarios. Some of these temporary hospitals never opened. Others opened in convention centers, parking garages, or parking lot tents, and ended up being used to a lesser degree than the worst-case scenarios.
But those who participated in the planning – including, in many cases, hospitalists – believe they created alternate care site manuals that could be quickly revived in the event of future COVID surges or other, similar crises. Better to plan for too much, they say, than not plan for enough.
Field hospitals or alternate care sites are defined in a recent journal article in Prehospital Disaster Medicine as “locations that can be converted to provide either inpatient and/or outpatient health services when existing facilities are compromised by a hazard impact or the volume of patients exceeds available capacity and/or capabilities.”2
The lead author of that report, Sue Anne Bell, PhD, FNP-BC, a disaster expert and assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan (UM), was one of five members of the leadership team for planning UM’s field hospital. They used an organizational unit structure based on the U.S. military’s staffing structure, with their work organized around six units of planning: personnel and labor, security, clinical operations, logistics and supply, planning and training, and communications. This team planned a 519-bed step-down care facility, the Michigan Medicine Field Hospital, for a 73,000-foot indoor track and performance facility at the university, three miles from UM’s main hospital. The aim was to provide safe care in a resource-limited environment.
“We were prepared, but the need never materialized as the peak of COVID cases started to subside,” Dr. Bell said. The team was ready to open within days using a “T-Minus” framework of days remaining on an official countdown clock. But when the need and deadlines kept getting pushed back, that gave them more time to develop clearer procedures.
Two Michigan Medicine hospitalists, Christopher Smith, MD, and David Paje, MD, MPH, both professors at UM’s medical school, were intimately involved in the process. “I was the medical director for the respiratory care unit that was opened for COVID patients, so I was pulled in to assist in the field hospital planning,” said Dr. Smith.
Dr. Paje was director of the short-stay unit and had been a medical officer in the U.S. Army, with training in how to set up military field hospitals. He credits that background as helpful for UM’s COVID field hospital planning, along with his experience in hospital medicine operations.
“We expected that these patients would need the expertise of hospitalists, who had quickly become familiar with the peculiarities of the new disease. That played a role in the decisions we made. Hospitalists were at the front lines of COVID care and had unique clinical insights about managing those with severe disease,” Dr. Paje added.
“When we started, the projections were dire. You don’t want to believe something like that is going to happen. When COVID started to cool off, it was more of a relief to us than anything else,” Dr. Smith said. “Still, it was a very worthwhile exercise. At the end of the day, we put together a comprehensive guide, which is ready for the next crisis.”