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UVa to open new hospital tower early to boost capacity

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UVa Medical Center opened its recently completed tower in 2020 and since has used it as the hospital's primary COVID care center. ANDREW SHURTLEFF/ THE DAILY PROGRESS FILE

Several floors within the new gleaming six-story tower at the University of Virginia Medical Center will come online sooner than expected as hospital officials plan for an increase in patients related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first group of additional beds in the tower will be available later this week, said Eric Swensen, a spokesman for the hospital.

UVa has set up a COVID-19 clinic to screen potential cases of the novel coronavirus, and said recently it is seeing an increasing number of inpatients with the virus, though it declined to give exact numbers.

As of press time, medical center officials don’t have plans to establish temporary or field hospitals, something Gov. Northam has said he is exploring at a statewide level.

“We have developed multiple scenarios for having sufficient staff and beds to provide care, including ICU care, if we were to see an influx of patients that required inpatient care for coronavirus,” Swensen said.

The hospital started construction on the $394 million tower in 2016. An expanded emergency department on the first floor opened in October. The top four floors of the building contain private patient rooms, which were scheduled to open gradually starting this summer.

The medical center plans to use more beds as needed in the new tower over the next six to eight weeks. Before the new emergency department opened in 2019, the hospital had 612 beds.

To ensure the medical center has sufficient staffing and resources, staff members have rescheduled elective surgeries as well as all clinic visits with the exception of urgent care and sick visits through at least April 13.

“We are putting team members through additional training to be prepared to take care of patients with COVID-19,” Swensen said in a statement. “The university is actively reviewing opportunities to repurpose unused space.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, one person has died from the virus, 63 people have tested positive in the Thomas Jefferson Health District. The first case was reported in the health district three weeks ago.

Health officials did not release information about the woman who died and it is unclear if she died at home or in a hospital.

Statewide, 165 people have been hospitalized, according to the Virginia Department of Health, and 19 have been within the district.

Nationally, 13.8% percent of cases have resulted in someone needing hospital care, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Other hospitals throughout Virginia are setting up hospitals in parking lots and converting dorms to prepare for a rise in patients, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Northam has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate sites across the state from potential field hospitals, and they looked at 41 locations. The list was narrowed to three sites in Fairfax, Hampton Roads and Richmond, Northam said during a press conference Wednesday.

Virginia has enough hospital beds for the crisis, according to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

However, the state is short 589 Intensive Care Unit beds, according to estimates.

Between Martha Jefferson and UVa, Charlottesville and Albemarle County have 37 ICU beds, according to an analysis by Kaiser Health News, though UVa’s website notes a larger number of intensive care beds dedicated to specialities such as pediatric care and cardiovascular care. UVa, one of six Level 1 trauma centers in the state, serves communities throughout central and south-central Virginia.

Northam and other state officials have said the key to making sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed is for people to stay home. On Monday, he ordered people to stay at their homes except for essential travel.

Jennifer Downs, a spokeswoman for Sentara Martha Jefferson, said in a statement that hospital staff are monitoring how they can leverage the resources within Sentara’s 12-hospital system as the situation unfolds.

The hospital has 176 beds, according to its website.

“Sentara Martha Jefferson has worked to identify additional areas within our hospital where we could care for patients, should it become necessary,” Downs said. “Additionally, we have active plans in place surrounding meeting the staffing needs we could be faced with as well.”


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