Emergency care sites ready for expected ‘surge’ in COVID-19 cases as city eyes two additional locations for homeless population

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Gov. Chris Sununu toured Manchester’s emergency care center on Wednesday. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

MANCHESTER, NH — A Greater Manchester Alternative Care Site, set up in 72 hours for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients, was possible because of plans put into place by the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) consisting of the mayor’s office and the city’s health, fire and police departments.

Mayor Joyce Craig said the EOC has been preparing for a crisis like this for years.  The city provided cots and management in setting it up along with the New Hampshire National Guard and in conjunction with Catholic Medical Center, Elliot Hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“I think it’s critical to point out that this never would have happened if Southern New Hampshire University hadn’t stood up and said that its facility was available,” she said.  “It really was a perfect place for this with two gyms right next to each other and other amenities at the location that makes it a great site” for clinical care.

That includes food service, showers, restrooms, meeting rooms and other accommodations.

The alternative care site was set up at the Stanley Spirou Field House in the event the number of COVID-19 patients escalates to the point it could overwhelm hospitals.

Craig explained the facility will be an extension of CMC and the Elliot to prepare for “a potential surge of patients.  We hope we don’t have to use it but we are prepared in the event we do.”

The site, she said, would be used for “low acuity patients,” those who are almost ready to go home from the hospital but not quite yet.

“They would be moved to this facility and we would be able to open up beds at the hospitals for those who need a higher level of care,” Craig said.

The mayor said the health, police and fire departments’ and their employees’ expertise “is really shining through right now.”  It was because of the training and the expertise of employees that they were able to implement the alternative care site at SNHU, she said.

And, according to the mayor, the alternative care site would never have happened without Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc, president of SNHU.

Craig said he was the first person who called offering assistance in getting meals to students after the city closed the schools.

“They were right there stepping up to do that,” she said.  “They are providing meals that go out to students on the weekends.”

Cots at SNHU’s field house will likely serve as a step-down unit for those recovering to free up hospital beds for those with acute symptoms. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

When the city put out the word that protective materials were needed for city employees, she said SNHU again stepped forward providing needed hand sanitizers.

“I can’t say enough what a community partner they are, not just through this crisis, but all year round,” she said.

The mayor, in a 15-minute interview Tuesday, took the opportunity to encourage people to stay home during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The scary thing about this virus is you don’t know who’s a carrier,” she said.  “You can be a carrier and not know it, not show symptoms.  It’s really scary.”

The mayor said she hadn’t been in a store in about 1 1/2 weeks when last Saturday she went to Target.

“I was shocked to see so many people out and about and acting like it was any day in a store,” she said.  “People were queued up pretty close to each other in line to check out, walking right by each other and standing right by each other looking at things on a shelf.  It’s just so dangerous right now to be doing that.  I just feel strongly about this.  Every opportunity I can get and others can get you to need to encourage people to stay home and take care of themselves and check in on seniors.  The best thing we can do is stay home and slow this curve.”

If a person falls into the at-risk population, she said maybe a neighbor could get their groceries when they are heading to the store.  “We need to take care of each other, more than ever, through this situation.”

She said she knows a lockdown is not great but said: “It’s to protect yourself, protect your family and protect the vulnerable population we could potentially be exposing.”

One very vulnerable population is the homeless and those who each night stay at the New Horizons shelter on Manchester Street.  The facility is not large enough for those using it to practice six-foot social distancing that the Centers for Disease Control recommend.

Craig said the city has been working closely with the shelter and has identified two sites within the city that could be used as additional shelters.

“The challenge we have right now is volunteers,” she said. Craig said they are working with the faith-based community in finding accommodations.  Pastor John Rivera of Hope Tabernacle, she said, has been a vital member of this operation.  She said during the winter, on a particularly cold night, he opened up his facility to the overflow homeless.

Craig has put in a request to Gov. Chris Sununu for help from the National Guard to staff the new sites because of the need for consistent staff and the need for funding to pay them.

Some volunteers left because they didn’t feel comfortable at the shelter and some staff members are ill, not necessarily from COVID-19, the mayor said.