US military medical team helps RI hospital deal with omicron surge

A team of military medical personnel landed at the Rhode Island Hospital to bolster the hospital’s response to the surge in COVID infections. (The Providence Journal/TNS)

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PROVIDENCE, RI (Tribune News Service) – Just days into a month-long deployment at the Rhode Island hospital, a military medical team is already making a difference by helping treat a surge in patients with of coronavirus caused by the spread of the omicron a variant.

“The 30-day mission is extremely important to us because we’ve just passed the peak of the influx and our numbers are starting to drop,” hospital president Dr. Saul N. Weingart said Wednesday. “So it’s exactly the right time when our staff needed help.”

The 23-person team made up mostly of members of the military began their mission on Saturday. The contingent includes three doctors, more than a dozen nurses and a pair of respiratory technicians. They have been divided between the intensive care and surgical units and the emergency department, where they work side by side with hospital staff.

The team’s current deployment is for 30 days, but it can be extended for an additional 30 days if the need persists.

President Joe Biden announced earlier this month the federal government’s decision to send aid to the Rhode Island hospital as well as hospitals in five other states overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic. The other states are New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan and New Mexico.

The Rhode Island hospital has seen the number of COVID patients increase eightfold since early November, Weingart said, while losing staff to the virus and voluntary departures. Staffing was up to 35% lower than normal.

The hospital tried to remedy the situation by combining units, postponing elective procedures and reorienting workers. But staff shortages mean around 100 beds are out of service.

With the help of the military team, the hospital was able to increase the number of intensive care unit beds available for patients and the number of operating rooms, although it is still well below its capacity in both areas.

Rhode Island Hospital President Dr. Saul N. Weingart thanks a military medical team for their assistance in treating a surge in coronavirus patients.

Rhode Island Hospital President Dr. Saul N. Weingart thanks a military medical team for their assistance in treating a surge in coronavirus patients. (The Providence Journal/TNS)

Most service members are assigned to the respiratory intensive care unit, which primarily treats coronavirus patients.

Lt. Col. Edgardo Ramirez, team commander of the Army’s 44th Medical Brigade, said he and other members felt welcomed by staff at the Rhode Island hospital.

“We’re in this together and will do everything we can to help the local community and help the team here in Rhode Island do their best,” he said.

Conditions in the hospital’s intensive care unit are no different from units elsewhere, said Captain Nicholas Law, an intensive care nurse. The biggest challenges have been logistics – knowing where medical supplies are kept and getting to grips with the hospital’s electronic records system.

“We’re just trying to learn the intricacies of this so we can be as fast as the nurses at the Rhode Island hospital, Law said.

One place where the addition of the team is felt is in the emergency department, where wait times for patients have been reduced, said Cynthia Danner, the hospital’s chief nursing officer.

“They help triage these patients so we can get them to the appropriate place,” she said.

The army’s aid has not solved all of the hospital’s problems and there is still a long way to go before the staffing shortage disappears.

“It’s a national problem. It’s not just a Rhode Island problem,” said Dr. Dean Roye, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “And it’s going to take national solutions to fix that across the country. We really need to fix the pipeline. We need to get an influx of nurses. We need to get an influx of other health professionals. But it’s going to be a long time, a very long time before returning to normal.”

For now, however, hospital staff are relieved to have gotten help from the military team and to see the expertise of its members.

“There has been a significant emotional uplift from having these skilled clinicians working with us and helping us care for patients,” Weingart said.

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