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CA Air National Guard readies convention center for COVID-19 patients

New Jersey National Guard (U.S. Air Force/Released)

As an expected surge in coronavirus patients looms, dozens of California Air National Guard members on Friday transformed the Santa Clara Convention Center into a temporary federal medical facility.

In a cavernous exhibit hall usually bustling with business activity, 35 men and women of the 146th Air Lift Wing out of the Channel Islands set up row after row of cots in clusters of 10 — the sound of the metal legs hitting the hard floor echoing off the walls and a forklift transporting boxes of pillows and blankets whirring in the background.

The makeshift health care center will be able to hold up to 250 patients who have tested positive for the disease. Hospitals will refer people to the facility who are well enough that they don’t require ventilators or other intensive care, but who don’t have a safe place to recuperate. That could mean people who are homeless, but also people who live in crowded homes.

The purpose, said Jennifer Tong, the associate chief medical officer at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and one of the doctors leading the county’s fight against the virus, is to be “prepared for the surge.”

County officials haven’t said exactly when they think that will occur, but John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases at UC Berkeley, said he expects a surge within the next week or two.

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“That’s what the modeling suggests,” he said.

Tong said patients could begin to fill the beds as early as next week. It’s unclear how long the convention center will operate as a medical facility. Doctors and nurses from hospitals across Santa Clara County will provide care.

The convention center will include one side for women and one for men, anchored by a makeshift nursing station in the center. Originally, there had been some discussion of using the facility to treat non-coronavirus patients, but that idea was scrapped because of concerns that someone could accidentally be brought in without any symptoms for the virus but later test positive and inadvertently spread the disease.

On Friday, National Guard members — who yesterday set up a facility in Southern California and tomorrow will move to another location — quickly made up the thin mattresses with crisp white sheets, placing pillows, towels and bright yellow blankets on each bed and folding chairs nearby. Clipboards hung from each bed frame, awaiting medical records and nursing notes. Temporary hand washing stations and bright red trash cans dotted the space.

At one point, Santa Clara Councilwoman Kathy Watanabe, who was helping with preparations, sped by, pausing only briefly to greet a county employee.

Patients, Tong said, could be housed at the facility for two or three weeks.

“We didn’t want to expose [uninfected] individuals,” she said.

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© 2020 the San Jose Mercury News