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What It's Like Inside North Carolina's COVID-19 Field Hospital

Claire Donnelly
A new field hospital in Lenoir will start accepting COVID-19 patients on Wednesday.

It was difficult to find a quiet spot Tuesday afternoon in the paved lot next to Caldwell UNC Health Care in Lenoir as dozens of people rushed to meet a deadline.

A man in a blue surgical mask sawed two-by-fours. A woman wheeled two computer carts wrapped in plastic. In the middle of all of the action stood 11 white plastic tents. Melissa Strickland pulled open the flap on one of the tents and stepped inside the state’s first COVID-19 field hospital.

“You can see they’re just setting up this ward and putting all of the equipment in place,” Strickland, a spokesperson for Samaritan’s Purse, said. The Boone-based international disaster relief organization is managing the field hospital which plans to start accepting patients on Wednesday.

Hanging blue tarps divided the tent into about eight sections or “rooms.” Each will have its own hospital bed, heart monitor and other medical equipment.

“We’ll have a station here,” Strickland said, gesturing at the right-hand corner of the tent. “This is where the doctor or nurse will have their table and their paperwork and all of that kind of stuff that you would normally see.”

The facility will have 30 beds total — though no intensive care unit or ventilators — and a staff of three doctors, one nurse practitioner, 10 nurses and a paramedic. COVID-19 patients can be brought via ambulance from any of five area hospitals: Caldwell UNC Health Care, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, Catawba Valley Health System, Carolinas Healthcare System Blue Ridge and Frye Regional Medical Center.

Lenoir is about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.

“Our patients will be the ones that are relatively stable and have been in the hospital for a period of time but they’re not ready to go home yet,” Regina Randolph, the field hospital’s nurse manager, said. “We are watching them, monitoring them, continuing their treatment and then hopefully discharging them.”

This is the second field hospital that Samaritan’s Purse has built in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus. In April, the group constructed a 68-bed facility in New York City’s Central Park. Prior to the pandemic, the group responded to disasters in countries including Iraq, Ecuador and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“To be deploying in the United States was a strange feeling for all of us,” Strickland said. “Now, to be in North Carolina, that’s heightened even more. When it’s in your backyard, you think, ‘These are our friends. These are our family. These are the people whose kids go to school with our kids.’”

Many hospitals in North Carolina are experiencing or bracing for a strain on capacity as hospitalization levels in the state continue to surge. On Tuesday, the state health department reported 3,781 people were hospitalized with the disease — the fourth day in a row it reported a new record high. Catawba and Caldwell Counties, which include facilities served by the new field hospital, were both listed in the red zone of North Carolina's most recent county alert system report.

“Probably what will happen is we’ll get four or five patients the first day. But I think once we get the systems worked out, we will be full,” Randolph said, adding that she expects all 30 field hospital beds will be full in a week, if not sooner.

Copyright 2021 WFAE.  For more go to WFAE.org

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.