As COVID-19 spreads, one of the lessons learned from the 2011 tornado outbreak in Northeast Alabama — when more than three dozen people lost their lives — could come into play.
In the wake of the tornadoes in DeKalb County on April 27 of that year, officials felt there was a need to be able to respond to mass casualties. In 2015 they rolled out a three-tent mobile hospital that could provide care for victims of disasters such as tornadoes or be used "to treat victims of an infectious illness outbreak," officials said at the time.
While DeKalb County has had no confirmed COVID-19 cases yet, the mobile medical station could be deployed, if needed, as the pandemic spreads, DeKalb County GIS manager Austin Reed said Tuesday. Reed works in the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency office in Fort Payne.
Neighboring Jackson County, meanwhile, has one confirmed case in the Bryant area on Sand Mountain, Reed said, but state reports for neighboring Cherokee, Etowah and Marshall counties on DeKalb's other borders showed no confirmed cases Tuesday. Adjacent Dade and Floyd counties in Georgia also had no confirmed cases on Tuesday.
Birmingham officials in Alabama on Tuesday were mulling a "shelter in place" order as state officials reported the state had at least 215 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 90 of those cases in Jefferson County, the county where Birmingham is located, the Associated Press reported. Health officials in Jefferson County, which has the highest number of cases in Alabama, had already ordered the closure of nonessential businesses, including hair salons and many retail stores in a bid to stem the outbreak.
Bryant, the general area where Jackson County's current COVID-19 case was confirmed, is just 15 miles or so southwest of Chattanooga in a part of Jackson County that separates DeKalb County from Tennessee, Reed noted, observing there is a lot of traffic among the three areas.
"Currently, we have not had discussions as to whether to deploy [the mobile hospital] in the wake of everything that's going on," Reed said, "but that's not out of the realm of possibilities."
Reed said the county also has a "pretty impressive" triage tent that is used for events such as health fair testing that could also find a place in local response.
"Once we have a confirmed case, it'll be a different story," Reed said. If officials decide to deploy the mobile hospital, "it would probably be at the request of DeKalb Regional [Medical Center] for triage."
DeKalb Regional Medical Center in Fort Payne, Alabama, has implemented precautionary measures such as:
-Implementing visitation restrictions to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus from visitors in an attempt to limit exposure
-Limiting entry into the hospital to screen everyone for travel history, fever or respiratory symptoms
-Monitoring the temperatures of all employees, members of the medical staff and patients
-Providing education about the importance of how to help prevent the spread of illness by being vigilant about hand washing and covering a cough or sneeze
Source: DeKalb Regional Medical Center
Candra Roberts, spokeswoman for the 134-bed DeKalb Regional Medical Center, did not speak to how the mobile hospital might be used, but said via email that the concept of being prepared for emergencies and infection control is "nothing new" for a hospital and the facility has had emergency plans "for many years."
DeKalb Regional works closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health and Alabama Hospital Association and has cooperative relationships with county agencies and emergency services Hospital leaders worked with community stakeholders to prepare for COVID-19 across the community, Roberts said. Hospital officials hold daily briefings on preparations, and a stringent protocol has been created for the safety of patients and staff, she said.
"Currently, our hospital is prepared with adequate staff and supplies," she said. The hospital is following guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials for screening, testing and infection control, she said. It reports to the state twice a day on the current status of bed availability, staffing resources, ventilators, negative pressure rooms and personal protective equipment.
Meanwhile, DeKalb County's mobile medical station is able to operate at any site with self-contained electrical power, air conditioning and supplies, EMA deputy director Michael Posey said in 2015 when the mobile hospital unit was first acquired.
If the unit is deployed, officials can roll out three trailers containing the station facilities, and the three tents that comprise the station can be erected in less than two hours, according to officials.
The mobile medical station has the capacity to support 50 patients and has supplies for seven days, officials said. Other mobile hospitals are scattered across the state.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.