National Guard Mobilized, Closed Hospitals Prepped as FEMA Arrives in New Jersey

Posted March 16, 2020 by Politico

New Jersey on Monday began rapidly accelerating its medical response to the coronavirus pandemic, with Gov. Phil Murphy mobilizing the National Guard and state officials working to expand the number of available hospitals beds as warnings about the outbreak grew more dire.

Murphy, who also issued orders shutting down schools and numerous public-facing businesses, said the state was preparing to create more hospital space to handle the expected influx of patients afflicted by coronavirus, which had infected at least 178 people in New Jersey. The state is now in talks to re-open one shuttered hospital and restore the use of closed wings in four other facilities, none of which was identified.

The effort came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency was deploying crews to New Jersey to setup two major testing centers after the Trump administration designated the state as one of 12 “priority” locations. The two centers — at Bergen County Community College in Paramus and the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel — should be able to process hundreds of tests daily.

Murphy and state officials, speaking at a press conference in Trenton, warned the crisis was about to get far worse.

“We do not take any of these steps lightly,” Murphy said after announcing a recommended curfew and the closure of restaurants, bars, casinos, movie theaters and gyms. “We know that each comes with its own set of impacts on residents and families, on communities and on local businesses. But, at this moment, our paramount concern must be to flatten the curve of new cases so we do not overload our health care system.”

The governor’s order to mobilize the National Guard means 8,100 soldiers and airmen will be available to assist with the response. Working with state emergency management officials, the Guard could handle tasks like distributing food to children who are out of school, helping establish the drive-through testing centers, setting up new hospital beds or establishing quarantine zones, as the National Guard has done in New York.

State officials gave few details about their efforts to expand the number of hospital beds, saying they were not yet ready to reveal which facilities they were hoping to re-open. The four shuttered hospital wings could allow for an additional 200 beds; it was not clear how many beds could be added at the closed hospital, which shut down in the past five years. New Jersey currently has 700 isolation beds, 1,183 intensive-care beds and 23,687 acute-care beds.

Meanwhile, FEMA was set to arrive in the state by Tuesday and would be quickly establishing two “pods” in Paramus and Holmdel to allow for drive-through testing.

Similar testing facilities in other states have been able to process 200 to 500 specimens per day, state officials said. Those being tested will still need to be screened and have a referring physician.

“It’s not going to be like a fast-food situation,” said the State Police commissioner, Col. Patrick Callahan at the briefing. “There has to be those criteria in order to go up and go through. If you imagine a thousand cars in line, I don’t think that’s going to happen on a daily basis.”

Hospitals and other health care providers in the state were also being called upon to expand the state’s testing capacity. One reference lab told the state it could handle up to 5,000 tests daily.

“These are high-frequency labs,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said. “They can process a lot of tests.”

Murphy said he spoke Monday to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on video conference with other governors. One issue that came up was the availability of equipment, both in terms of personal-protective gear for medical professionals and medical equipment for treating patients.

As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck a more aggressive tone in pressing the president for assistance — even on a press call earlier in the day with Murphy — New Jersey’s governor praised Trump even as he sought more help from Washington.

“On our call today, I pressed the president and vice president and their teams for more personal protective equipment for our frontline public health workers, for more on-the-ground assistance — ala the FEMA help — and setting up for testing. And to prepare to support our workers, our businesses and our economy, when we come out of this emergency, which we inevitably will do,” Murphy said. “We will continue to push for necessary supplies, particularly so-called PPE, personal protective equipment, so long as there is a need for them. And there is.”

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National Guard Mobilized, Closed Hospitals Prepped as FEMA Arrives in New Jersey