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Army Corps of Engineers considers Westminster arena for temporary hospital

Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, strode into Carroll County Agriculture Center’s Shipley Arena on Friday morning to make some introductions. There were the county’s health officer and emergency manager, the head of Carroll Hospital, and Ag Center staff.

Plus five engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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As the number of COVID-19 cases identified in Carroll County and the region continues to grow, municipal, county, state and federal officials have been collaborating to respond. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been surveying hundreds of potential sites across the U.S. for temporary hospitals to handle an anticipated surge of patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as the pandemic progresses across the nation.

Though, as County Emergency Manager Valerie Hawkins made clear to everyone meeting at the arena Friday morning, the visit was purely an initial survey.

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“The idea behind this is simply a site visit by the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the feasibility of using this facility for possible surge purposes,” she said. “There is no plan in place to utilize it, there is nothing in place at all; this is just the initial step to start thinking about that process and if it’s a feasible thing to do here.”

All five of the engineers declined to comment for this article, but quickly spread about the cavernous facility, their voices turning to soft echoes as they each turned to their work.

“They have a checklist of items to go over, for instance the fire alarms, lighting and HVAC — all that type of stuff,” Wantz, president of the Board of County Commissioners, said of the visit he had helped set in motion by reaching out to the Corps on Tuesday. “I wanted to get on the list of facilities they were looking at ASAP.”

In the event Shipley Arena is chosen as a site for a temporary hospital, Wantz said he expects it would be considered a regional facility, helping not just COVID-19 patients from Carroll County, but from nearby jurisdictions as well.

“If Frederick County or Howard County or Baltimore County needs some assistance, I’m certainly not limiting it to Carroll,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We’re all going to have to work together.”

Armory building to be used as medical site

In a more local collaboration, Friday morning also saw county and City of Westminster officials touring and discussing the use of the Westminster armory building on Longwell Avenue as a medical respite location for homeless, sheltered or other at-risk people.

“Our goal is to be able to have a location for folks who are perhaps awaiting test results, might have been symptomatic people who have tested positive and don’t have a place to isolate, but people who don’t need hospitalization,” said Celene Steckel, county director of Citizen Services. “They need a place to go, they need a place to convalesce while getting better if they are positive, with the oversight of Access Carroll and a medical team.”

Steckel and Tammy Black, executive director of Access Carroll, toured the armory building Friday, appreciating the large, open indoor space, along with the attendant facilities.

At left, Tammy Black, executive director of Access Carroll, and Celene Steckel, county director of Citizen Services, tour the armory building on Longwell Avenue in Westminster on Friday.
At left, Tammy Black, executive director of Access Carroll, and Celene Steckel, county director of Citizen Services, tour the armory building on Longwell Avenue in Westminster on Friday. (Jon Kelvey)

“This is such an amazing location because it has a large indoor capacity for folks that really can’t, for whatever reason, be outside safely, and we can space them out,” she said. “This property has a lot of expansion potential. We’re hoping we won’t have to use it all, but the point is we have expansion capacity for individuals and families.”

The target population for the armory, once it is opened, will be those who are homeless or at risk and have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are a “person under investigation," or PUI — essentially, people waiting for test results — according to Black. Anyone sick enough to need critical care would go to the hospital, she said, but for those who are symptomatic and just need to isolate but have not place to do so, the armory would be there for them.

“Right now, top of my head, I’m thinking there could be maybe up to eight individuals who could probably take advantage of this pretty quickly,” Black said.

But while the current plan is to provide a place for homeless people to convalesce, “We all know this could definitely expand beyond that,” she said. “I don’t know what this will evolve into. I think it really depends on what the community need is and the capacity, but that’s why getting a place like this now, to plan proactively for that potential, is really smart."

The City of Westminster first broached the idea of opening up the armory for use if needed, according to Steckel.

It was an idea born of conversations between Westminster Mayor Joe Dominick and members of the Westminster Common Council as they brainstormed how the city could contribute to the efforts being made by the county, state, and federal governments.

“The one thing we felt we could help with was some facilities,” Dominick said. “Access Carroll is going to have some issues to address, and there is some really good proximity between Access Carroll and the armory. The armory also has some amenities — showers, rooms and things like that — which could be useful.”

It’s not entirely clear what the facility will look like when in operation, Black said, as it will largely depend on the need in the community. While there might be a few cots spaced out in the interior of the armory to begin with, Black hopes that if there is a large number of people in the facility, tents could be set up outside.

“If someone is positive, it really would be ideal for them to be outside. I say that because the incidence of their passing it on to others is much, much lower,” Black said. “That’s why we are doing collections outside, it’s why hospitals are setting up tents outside.”

It’s not clear just when the facility would be opened as a medical respite, Steckel said, but the ball is rolling and plans are being made.

“We are still working with Westminster City regarding the time frame, which is also impacted by coordinating staffing and security as well as supplies for the operation,” she said. “It’s definitely happening here.”

Anyone who thinks they or a family member might be showing coronavirus symptoms can call the Carroll County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline, which is available 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. seven days a week at 410-876-4848, or contact their doctor. After hours, callers may leave a message or call 211. People with emergencies should continue to call 911.

Updates on the number of Maryland cases and other important information can be found on the health department’s COVID-19 webpage at cchd.maryland.gov/covid-19/.

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