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Field Hospitals Return To Some States As COVID-19 Pushes Hospitals To Breaking Point

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The winter surge of COVID-19 cases is driving up the death rate and pushing hospitals across the country to their breaking point. And now a phenomenon is reemerging - the temporary field hospital. Claire Donnelly of member station WFAE visited one that recently opened in western North Carolina after smaller rural hospitals found they just couldn't cope.

CLAIRE DONNELLY, BYLINE: A cluster of white tents stands in a hospital parking lot in Lenoir, N.C. The Blue Ridge Mountains loom in the background as dozens of people rush around with power tools and medical equipment. Melissa Strickland pulls open the flap on one of the tents and ushers me inside.

MELISSA STRICKLAND: So you can see they're just setting up this ward, still, and putting all of the equipment in place. But we can...

DONNELLY: Strickland works with Samaritan's Purse, the charity that built this field hospital. The relief organization normally deploys to disasters in other parts of the world, like Iraq, Ecuador and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

STRICKLAND: And then we have - the individual beds will go in these partitioned areas. And yes, it does look very different. It is a field hospital.

DONNELLY: Inside the tents, blue tarps act as privacy curtains between the beds. Each space also contains standard hospital equipment, like a heart monitor and an IV stand. And even though temperatures regularly dip below freezing here this time of year, there are diesel heaters to keep patients warm. Erin Holzhauer is the field hospital's medical director.

ERIN HOLZHAUER: It snowed a few days ago, and we actually found that the snow worked as an insulation on top of the tent. And they were needing less heat than before the snow. So...

DONNELLY: In December, hospitals in this area of North Carolina were struggling with an overflow of patients. So five of them came together to request this field hospital. It's designed for COVID-19 patients who still need to be monitored but don't need critical care. It opened January 6, and Holzhauer says its 30 beds have been steadily filling up.

HOLZHAUER: We're seeing a lot of people who have come in - you know, maybe they've had COVID for four or five days. They're starting to feel more weak, more short of breath. They come into the hospital, and they need oxygen for a few days before they're able to go home.

DONNELLY: The field hospital doesn't use ventilators, but supplementary oxygen is piped in from Caldwell UNC Health Care, the hospital just across the parking lot. Before the pandemic, Caldwell saw about 60 patients a day. Now they get more than 100. Hospital president Laura Easton says in late December, every single bed was full.

LAURA EASTON: There was a lot of anxiety amongst our emergency room staff and our medical staff and our nurses. Where do we go next?

DONNELLY: Samaritan's Purse set up a field hospital in New York's Central Park in the early days of the pandemic. That's closed now. But in response to the latest surges, it's opened this one and another north of Los Angeles. Melissa Strickland says the experience has been surreal, especially since Samaritan's Purse is based in western North Carolina.

STRICKLAND: Just to be deploying in the United States was a strange feeling for all of us. And now to be in North Carolina, that's, you know, heightened even more when it's in your backyard and you think, these are our friends. These are our family. These are the people that are - whose kids go to school with our kids. And it does feel really personal.

DONNELLY: Samaritan's Purse expects the field hospital to be full within days.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Donnelly in Charlotte, N.C.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story comes from NPR's health reporting partnership with WFAE and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.