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UTHSC Leads Region’s Alternative-Care Hospital for COVID-19 Patients

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, center, said the alternative-care hospital being led by UTHSC “will save lives.” Dr. Richard Walker, UTHSC faculty member and CEO of the site, and UTHSC College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD, stand to his right respectively, as he speaks to the media following a tour of the facility. (Photos courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis Region)

When the Governor Bill Lee came to Memphis Saturday to survey the city’s response to the novel coronavirus, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center stood front and center as the leader of a 400-bed, alternative-care field hospital that is being built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the former Commercial Appeal building at 495 Union Avenue in the Memphis Medical District.

“Your work is literally going to save lives,” the governor told a gathering of UTHSC physicians, nurses, and other project leaders, before touring the cavernous building that has been gutted and is being readied for use should it be needed.

The hospital is set to be ready by mid-May. It will be used if the number of those infected exceeds available hospital beds in the region.

Crews from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are readying the building to be used  if the number of COVID-19 patients becomes greater than hospitals can handle.

It is designed for less-acute care COVID-19 patients, those who are ill or recovering and might need oxygen but are not candidates for the higher-level care that hospitals can provide.

Two faculty members from the UTHSC College of Medicine have been tapped by Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD, to direct the hospital, along with a leader from the College of Nursing.

Richard Walker, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine and chair and director of the emergency medicine residency program at UTHSC, will serve as the chief executive officer. Regan Williams, MD, associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at UTHSC and medical director of trauma at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, is the chief medical officer for the facility. Terri Stewart, MSN, RN, a nurse for more than 42 years with extensive experience in executive nursing leadership and practice in acute care settings, is the chief nursing officer. They are working with the Shelby County Health Department to staff the facility.

“I’d be happy to be in charge of a hospital that never has a patient,” said Dr. Walker, who trained in disaster management working in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The first floor of the building will house patient intake and triage operations, along with a few beds for patients who need increased care. Floors two through four will have hundreds of beds. Rather than an open ward, the beds will be grouped in threes, surrounded by walls on three sides, and fronted with a curtain.

“The point is really to be overflow for the hospitals,” Dr. Williams said. “We really want the hospitals to do what they do best, which is manage really sick patients.”

Hundreds of workers have spent the last couple of weeks getting the building ready and were working over the weekend when the governor toured.

“This is a way to serve the public,” Stewart said, after she and the other leaders toured the building. “My goal would be for us to provide safe, competent care in a time when people are afraid and very vulnerable.”

Dean Strome told reporters he hopes the building is never needed and advised the public to remain vigilant with social distancing and other measures.

The field hospital could stand on alert for months as the trajectory of the virus plays out.

“We are just starting the long game with this virus,” the governor said.

Dean Strome said he is proud of all the work being done to set up the hospital, but he is hopeful it remains a precautionary measure.

“Candidly, we hope this building is never, ever used,” he said.