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Coronavirus field hospital at Baltimore Convention Center has seen light use, will remain open as precaution

The Baltimore Convention Center has been turned into a field hospital amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the state. The site is now equipped with 250 private beds, bathrooms and hand washing stations.
The Baltimore Convention Center has been turned into a field hospital amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the state. The site is now equipped with 250 private beds, bathrooms and hand washing stations. (Luke Broadwater/Baltimore Sun)

The coronavirus field hospital in downtown Baltimore has seen light use since opening in April, but Maryland officials say it will remain operational as a precaution while the state eases restrictions.

About 109 patients have been transferred to the facility at the Baltimore Convention Center from 19 Maryland hospitals since it opened, staying for an average of five days, said Dr. Chuck Callahan, co-director of the field hospital and an executive at University of Maryland Medical Center.

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In a push to expand Maryland’s hospital bed capacity, state officials converted the convention center into a field hospital under the direction of the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins medical systems.

Officials said at the time that they were prepared to increase the field hospital’s footprint and number of beds in the event others became overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. As of Sunday, Maryland has since confirmed almost 58,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 2,600 fatalities across the state.

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Officials say an average of 15 patients are staying at the field hospital a day — occupying a fraction of its 250-bed capacity.

That’s good news, said Dr. Jim Ficke, the other co-director of the field hospital and an orthopedic surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“With the social distancing and risk and contact mitigation, there has been a much lower number of admissions and, fortunately, deaths were much less than were modeled,” Ficke said. “We’ve been busy, but we haven’t been overwhelmed.”

Gov. Larry Hogan announced last week the state would ease more restrictions on businesses. However, further reopening depends on Marylanders’ discipline in continuing to follow public health recommendations, such as wearing masks inside, staying six feet apart from others and remaining at home as much as possible, Hogan said

The state does not have immediate plans to close the field hospital, said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan.

“The state remains committed to the convention center field hospital for the foreseeable future, given the importance of having medical surge capacity in place, even if as a precautionary measure,” Ricci said.

The state has a six-month lease with the convention center.

These days, the windowless field hospital may appear quiet from the outside. Visitors are not permitted in and officials declined The Baltimore Sun’s request to tour the operation, citing patient privacy.

However, the building is far from empty. About 1,000 health care workers and nonmedical staffers were hired to work at the field hospital in a range of jobs. Anywhere from 50 to 100 people staff the facility at a given time, Callahan said.

Neutral-colored walls have been decorated with artwork donated by the Community Art Collaborative AmeriCorps Program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Ficke said.

And patients, who are typically near the end of their hospitalization, thumb through books and magazines or work on sudoku puzzles to pass the time. Movies, television and Wi-Fi are available, and patients are allowed to use their phones, Ficke said.

“If patients think of a field hospital, they think of a tent on the ground,” Ficke said. “This is a convention center. It’s a comfortable place. Our patients are happy, often tearful when they leave.”

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Some nonmedical staff members came to the field hospital from around the country with backgrounds in economics, law, computer sciences and equine therapy, the co-directors said.

“They’re hired employees who have volunteered to put themselves at risk," Callahan said. “No one has to do that. You have this spirit of a volunteer.”

Some staffers have formed bonds with those who are recuperating. Ficke described a scene in which a medical assistant at the field hospital offered to read aloud to a patient who was blind.

And the patients, in turn, have used satisfaction surveys — distributed as they are being released — to write messages of gratitude to their caretakers.

“I thank you for the kindness and love shown to me," one patient wrote in a message viewed by The Sun. "Meant SO MUCH. I almost died (real talk) and needed the love shown.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

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