LENOIR – After setting up COVID-19 field hospitals in New York and Italy early in the pandemic, Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse is building a new 30-bed field hospital in Lenoir to provide COVID-19 support to western North Carolina health systems.

Melissa Strickland, a spokesperson for Samaritan’s Purse, said UNC Health Care and Caldwell Memorial Hospital approached the organization to explain the need for the field hospital while COVID-19 cases are surging. This is the first field hospital the organization has built in North Carolina.

“After some discussion and assessment, we concluded that we could indeed support them and deployed immediately after that,” Strickland said.

The field hospital — on the grounds of Caldwell UNC Health Care — is on schedule to open midweek. It will serve five health systems including:

  • Caldwell UNC Health Care (Lenoir)
  • Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (Boone)
  • Catawba Valley Health System (Hickory)
  • Carolinas Healthcare System Blue Ridge (Morganton)
  • Frye Regional Medical Center (Hickory)

The Caldwell UNC site was selected due to its central location and ability to provide support services. Patients receiving treatment at the field hospital will be limited to those who are positive but do not need the support of a ventilator, according to a Strickland.

Strickland said the field hospital does not have an intensive care unit and patients can stay in the field hospital for as long as needed.

“On behalf of all the health systems participating in this effort, I’d like to thank Samaritan’s Purse for making this investment in the well-being of our communities,” said Laura Easton, president and CEO of Caldwell UNC Health Care. “Planning for this added capacity now will help us provide the level of care our communities need as volumes continue to grow in our region.”

Strickland added that the only criteria Samaritan’s Purse uses when determining where to deploy is if there is a need.

“(Lenoir) is smaller than New York City or Italy, or some of the places that we’ve gone overseas, but that’s not what determines whether we help. We help people in need, period,” Strickland said. “And this case also happens to be in our backyard. So it’s a very personal response to us.”

The organization has agreed to construct, supply and coordinate staffing for the 30-bed field hospital and has received overwhelming interest from medical personnel across the United States who are willing to serve, according to a press release sent by Samaritan’s Purse.

The biggest difference in using a field hospital is that it’s in a tent instead of a hospital building. Strickland said that walking in, it would look similar with how the hospital beds and medical equipment are set up.

“So yes, it looks a little different, but the one thing I would want to stress is that despite the difference in the way it looks, the quality of the care is excellent,” Strickland said. “They’re highly skilled, highly trained professionals, who will provide top quality medical care.”

The hospital will be staffed by medical personnel from across the United States including those who helped in New York and Italy.

Though Strickland said the organization has never deployed in the snow, they are prepared with heaters in the tent.

“When we deployed in both Italy and in New York City, it was very, very cold,” Strickland said. “We’ve deployed in horrible rain and wind and everything else. So these tents are equipped to handle weather.”

Samaritan’s Purse plans to have the field hospital for as long as necessary. Strickland said the area hospitals will let them know when they feel the surge capacity of the field hospital is no longer needed.

“Our good news comes for us when we’re told to go home, when the hospital tells us, ‘Hey, get out of here,’” Strickland said. “That would be a good day for us, because that will mean that the trends are subsiding.”

North Carolina has seen record increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitals to start 2021. Currently, 3,635 people are hospitalized in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. AppHealthCare reports that 105 people have been hospitalized within its district due to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Vicki Stevens, a spokesperson for Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, said ARHS will do everything possible to treat patients at Watauga Medical Center.

“If COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to surge beyond our bed capacity or staffing resources, we will consider sending COVID-19 patients to the field hospital,” Stevens said.

Stevens said 34 hospital beds are available at Watauga Medical Center as of Jan. 4.

AppHealthCare health director Jennifer Greene said hospitalizations related to COVID-19 went up in the week leading to New Year’s Day. She also said AppHealthCare is bracing for a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the holiday.

Avery County has had a total of 1,383 COVID-19 cases and 15 deaths, according to the NCDHHS.

Watauga County has surpassed 3,000 total cases with 140 active cases as of Jan. 4. Ashe and Alleghany counties have 2,219 combined cases with 152 active as of Jan. 4, according to AppHealthCare. Fifty-seven people have died in AppHealthCare’s district.

Samaritan’s Purse is a non-denominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Samaritan’s Purse has helped people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine since 1970.

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