ESSEX JUNCTION, VT., – April 1st was supposed to be April Fool’s Day, a day that should have been full of jokes and satire. Instead, a team of civil engineers from the Vermont National Guard spent their day on a more serious note.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left communities looking for ways to augment their health care facilities in order to cope with the challenges it has brought on. One challenge was the need for more beds and more locations for people to seek medical treatment.
To take the strain off the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, the order came down that the Vermont National Guard would build an alternate healthcare facility complete with 400 beds. The task now was to transform the Champlain Valley Exposition into a fully functioning medical center as quickly as possible.
“This medical facility will supplement our existing medical facilities that we have, with this pandemic and the overflow of patients to allow for the treatment of COVID-19 patients as well as our routine medical care for our community,” said Air Force Maj. Jason Villemaire, the base civil engineer assigned to the 158th Civil Engineer Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard.
Governor Phil Scott activated the Vermont National Guard to help the state respond to COVID-19, with a team of more than 60 National Guardsmen and civilians coming together to get the facility built, putting in more than 3,500 labor hours into the project.
Nearly 50,000 square feet of the 74,000 total available was transformed to be able to handle positive and negative COVID-19 patients. The design began on the evening April 1st with materials showing up the following morning, all provided by the State of Vermont, and construction beginning that afternoon.
“We started with the concept to fit all 400 beds into this facility,” Vallemaire said, “at that time we developed the formal layout to have appropriate spacing for patients and all the required medical support facilities to allow the medical staff to treat and care for the community members that are going to be in this facility.”
Villemaire explained that the 400 beds are organized in sections of 50 to allow for different levels of care in each. He continued by saying that within four days the facility went from draft to ready for patients.
Each of the 400 beds is equipped with lightning and outlets, along with each section of the facility having running hot and cold water, supply rooms, a pharmacy and food facility, among its many features.
“It was a great challenge but we have such a great and incredibly talented group of professionals in our joint environment,” Villemaire said.
Governor Phil Scott visited the facility as staff were training and preparing for patients, and praised everyone involved for their efforts and what it means to the local community. The Vermont Department of Public Safety said they were “impressed” by the facility and its design.
“It truly validates who we are as Green Mountain Boys,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Lepine, the commander of the 158th Mission Support Group, Vermont Air National Guard.
Lepine said that one of the things that stood out to him the most was how during the construction many people were doing tasks that was not their military specialty, but rather skills they had from outside the military.
Vermont’s 40th Army Band for example, was activated to assist in the construction and included people like Army Staff Sgt. Emily Eckel, a bassoon player assigned to the band.
Using carpentry skills gained from building theater sets in college, she told The Atlantic, “Like the stars have aligned, I knew enough to put up walls and I could use power tools.”
The construction was done in a modular way, where the walls were built in sections and could be moved about and reorganized to build any shape of room they needed. The scope of the project left some concerns however.
While first walking through the exposition, Army Lt. Col. Christopher Gookin, the deputy state surgeon, also speaking to The Atlantic said, “We’re having that moment of doubt where we’re like, ‘it’s not going to be big enough’.”
Finally on April 10th, the first patient showed up who was COVID-19 positive and had special requirements, prompting the state to ask the medical facility at the exposition to admit the individual. As of April 22nd, Vermont has had 823 total cases of COVID-19 with 40 deaths.
“This is one of the most incredible feats I have ever been part of,” Villemaire said. “I couldn’t be more proud of everybody that is here that what we have accomplished in just a few days.”