COVID-19 task force focusing on leadership, staffing for Alstom overflow site in Chattanooga

Alstom property / Contributed photo

Now that Chattanooga leaders have identified a site to handle overflow patients from area hospitals, the area's COVID-19 task force is turning its attention to the issue of who will oversee medical care and staffing there.

The Chattanooga and Hamilton County mayors asked the task force to identify prospects to serve as chief medical officer, chief nursing officer and chief administrative officer after leaders scrapped plans to use the Chattanooga Convention Center over the weekend in favor of a larger building on the Alstom property, which can hold nearly three times the capacity of the convention center, or around 1,500 patients.

Task force chairwoman Rae Young Bond, CEO of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, said three highly qualified candidates were vetted and chosen by the 15-member task force and local officials are waiting for the state to approve and announce those people. The officers will work directly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency on planning, equipment and staffing at the riverfront building, known as "Big Blue."

"Our critical need is to have the site up and running before the surge hits, and of course we're still praying that there won't be a surge," Bond said. "That said, if the surge hits, we want to be ready for it."

With some projections indicating the COVID-19 surge will hit Tennessee around April 15-16, the state is now racing forward in a furious effort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-fashion and equip arenas and convention centers across the state with medical equipment and 7,000 overflow beds.

Confirmed cases have increased locally in the past week, but Bond said Chattanooga is likely a few weeks behind the state projections. Local hospitals are reporting "satisfactory" staffing at this point in the pandemic, she said.

"We're behind the trend lines in the presence of the virus in our community," Bond said. "We're a couple weeks behind Nashville and Memphis, and I'm thankful for that, because it means we've had a little bit more time to prepare."

How to staff the site is key, and Bond said volunteers who would like to help can sign up online through the Tennessee Medical Reserve Corps. She said it's too soon to say how many are needed, and how many will be paid staff or volunteers and if the site will be for COVID-19 patients, non-coronavirus patients or a combination.

"It's a very active planning stage," Bond said. "Everyone is waiting to get some additional details."

The task force will continue to work on expanding testing and securing needed supplies in the coming week, she said. In the meantime, citizens should focus on their overall health and keep in touch with their primary care providers for how to maintain routine care.

"It is extremely important that patients continue to take care of their own health-related needs beyond their concern for COVID," Bond said. "We want to keep our emergency rooms free for crisis patients."

For people without a designated doctor who need COVID-19 care or testing, Bond said the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department has a list of providers who can help.

Kerry Hayes, chief of staff to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, said the local COVID-19 situation is "more severe" as confirmed cases grow, which is concerning but reinforces the need for sustained social distancing. He said the city's position is to help coordinate and enforce the shelter-in-place order.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@ or 423-757-6673.