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Maryland hospitals setting up ‘triage tents’ to assess patients ahead of possible surge of coronavirus infections

To prepare for a possible surge in patients seeking assessments for the novel coronavirus, Maryland hospitals have pitched outdoor tents in which to assemble triage personnel and medical equipment in an attempt to isolate potential COVID-19 cases.

Considered extensions of the emergency room, the temperature-controlled makeshifts could soon serve as aggregation sites for those with COVID-19 or other respiratory symptoms. Some hospitals might also use the tents to triage those experiencing noncoronavirus-related symptoms as a way to divide patient populations, depending on the need, officials said Wednesday.

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The contagious upper respiratory illness, which has spread rapidly into every continent, has sickened 125,865 and killed 4,615 people as of Wednesday night. So far, Maryland has confirmed 12 positive COVID-19 cases, which is caused by the coronavirus. Public health officials have warned that a jump in cases is possible as testing of medical systemsramps up and more people look to get tested.

The Greater Baltimore Medical Center and University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center have already set up the tents, though they remain generally empty for now.

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Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesperson for the University of Maryland Medical System’s affiliates, said in an email that the hospital network’s Incident Command suggested hospitals set up their triage tents as an exercise so staff members can “refamiliarize” themselves with the operation in case of a surge in patient volume. Each site has different triggers of when the tents might be used, he said.

Officials from the LifeBridge hospital family, which includes Sinai Hospital, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital, Levindale and Grace Medical Center, also said they had put up triage tents outside of emergency departments at Sinai, Northwest and Carroll should a need arise for an area to screen possible COVID-19 patients and keep visitors safe.

Mercy Medical Center spokesman Daniel Collins said in an email that the hospital has established an isolation unit, but inside the hospital. And MedStar Health spokeswoman Debra Schindler said the hospital system has the tents ready to roll out when the need surfaces. A Johns Hopkins Medicine spokesperson confirmed that it would also prepare to set up tents to expedite the care of patients with noncritical illnesses.

Dr. Harold Tucker, chief medical officer and one of the COVID-19 incident commanders for the GBMC HealthCare System, said while he hopes the hospital will not need to use the tents, medical leadership wants to anticipate what might happen. While some have warned that the disease will continue to spread and infect more people over the next few weeks or months, others, including President Donald Trump, have asserted that the number of cases will substantially drop in April, or with the onset of warm weather.

Tucker said every day yields a new set of information and data to evaluate, and thus, no one can know for sure when the disease might reach its peak or how many cases will surface. This uncertainty, he said, validates separating infected patients from the rest of the hospital and its visitors.

“We don’t intend for the tents to be scary, but reassuring,” he said. “For those who need to be evaluated, the tents will allow us to do that comprehensively.”

Tucker said GBMC previously used the tents when the hospital experienced an influx of patients with H1N1, the most common strain of the 2009 influenza virus. Most will contain stretchers, medical equipment, electricity, heat and air conditioning. They will also be weather-protected.

He also said the state has not directed or encouraged hospitals to pitch the tents in anticipation of a possible patient surge. Rather, GBMC and others have voluntarily taken this precautionary step. The Maryland Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. No vaccination or treatment regiment for COVID-19 exists, though the coronavirus can pass through direct contact with people or surfaces that have been exposed to the droplets and other fluids that emanate from sickened individuals.

Though many have recovered from the coronavirus, scientists and researchers say senior citizens with compromised immune systems or chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, lung and heart disease prove most vulnerable to serious illness, as those who contract the strain can contract pneumonia.

Limiting social interaction with others and good hygiene practices such as hand-washing have been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as effective preventative measures.

*Clarification: A previous version of this article did not make clear that LifeBridge hospitals had already put up triage tents.

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