Army Corps of Engineers aids Arizona as COVID-19 surge looms

Officials from Arizona’s health department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent hours scouring a shuttered Phoenix hospital to see how quickly it could be running if an expected surge of coronavirus cases hits.

The state is looking to reopen two closed Phoenix hospitals and convert a specialty hospital. The review of the closed St. Luke’s Medical Center is part of an effort to nearly double hospital capacity from the current 16,900 to the nearly 30,000 officials say might be needed by May.

"It’ll take three or four weeks to get St. Luke’s ready," said Robert Klein with the Army Corps of Engineers.

On Thursday, a small team from the Army Corps of Engineers took a tour of Core Institute, located in North Phoenix. The facility is meant mostly for orthopedic cases.

The quickest way to boost capacity is if existing hospitals convert other areas to patient care, something they are already planning to do. Hospitals are planning to convert recovery rooms, unused surgical suites and other areas to boost capacity.

“Even if they can do that by 50%, that would be another 8,000 beds potentially and another 700 ICU beds,” Health Services Department Director Dr. Cara Christ said. The state currently has about 1,500 intensive care unit beds.

Christ said her projections for new beds range from 7,000 to 13,000. The agency is also scouring the state’s outpatient surgical centers for bed space and equipment like ventilators that the most critically ill patients may need, and looking to anesthesia and CPAP machines used for sleep apnea that can be converted into ventilators.

A state request to the federal government to provide 5,000 ventilators has been approved, but is unlikely to be fully met, at least quickly. New York, now the nation’s hotspot for COVID-19 cases caused by the new virus, asked for 30,000 but is getting just 4,000.

Christ is also asking the Army Corps to look at large facilities that could be set up for patients no longer needing acute hospital care but still too ill to go home. Those might include the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds in Phoenix.

During a news conference on Wednesday, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, alongside governor Doug Ducey, said peak COVID-19 cases will likely be in April.

Dr. Cara Christ said based off of computer analytics and health officials, the state will see peak cases of the deadly virus from the middle to the end of April.

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