These days, almost all the beds in New England Baptist Hospital are empty. The hospital is normally a hub of orthopedic medicine, but most of that type of care has been halted to free up time and space for a possible surge of people sick with COVID-19.
“What that means is we have an excellent hospital, well-staffed, [with] many beds available,” says Kevin Tabb, CEO of Beth Israel Lahey Health, which operates New England Baptist Hospital.
Those beds may soon be filled with patients who do not have COVID-19, who have been transferred from other Beth Israel Lahey Health hospitals. The idea is to clear space from larger facilities that are better equipped to care for patients in critical condition due to the coronavirus.
New England Baptist is just one of many care facilities and clinics that are being refitted for new purpose in the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some will accept transferred patients that don’t have COVID-19, and others will become dedicated COVID-19 units. The spaces are being converted with the goal of ensuring that health care workers can care for as many patients as possible if the pandemic sends a wave of critically ill patients to hospitals.
“It’s really clear that just using our current space as it stands today is not going to be enough,” says Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “You want to create different physical spaces if at all possible, both for moving non-COVID patients off, and other people building new capacities and getting new COVID patients into those facilities.”
Converting a specialty hospital like New England Baptist Hospital takes “1,001 details that you need to think about,” Tabb says. The hospital’s pharmacy must be restocked with drugs for a myriad of different diseases, and staff need to be trained to care for those different conditions as well as critical care for COVID-19 — in case health care workers need to start putting patients with the coronavirus in New England Baptist Hospital as well, Tabb says.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of physicians and nurses who are going through that training as we speak,” he says. “We’ve also redeployed physicians from other places within the system, particularly Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to New England Baptist so that they can cover the needs of [different] medical patients.”
Mass General Brigham’s Spaulding Hospital, a specialty rehabilitation hospital, is also being converted to support the hospital system’s larger care facilities. In an email sent to Spaulding employees Thursday morning, executives wrote that the hospital is forming a dedicated unit for patients with COVID-19, but who do not need intensive care and are in recovery.
“To meet this need we have been preparing to dedicate our 4th floor to begin caring for this patient population beginning Monday March 30th,” Spaulding executives wrote. “All week we have been training and preparing the teams that will work on these units.”
Carney Hospital in Dorchester has also created dedicated COVID-19 units in unused wings of the building — something that health experts say are ideal spaces for the creation of temporary, emergency medical units.
Whether all these efforts will be enough depends largely on one thing, according to Beth Israel Lahey Health’s Tabb.
“How seriously the public takes social distancing,” he says. “If we are successful at keeping people at home and keeping their distance, we might decrease the peak of this surge such that the capacity we have will be sufficient.”
But Tabb also points to the size of the epidemic in New York state, where hospitals are becoming stressed under the weight of critically ill patients with coronavirus.
“Anybody with eyes in their head, anybody who is watching what is happening in New York and Washington and elsewhere would be foolish not to get ready now,” he says. “We are not wasting any time to get as prepared as possible for the surge that is almost certainly coming.”