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With students gone, U-Mary embraces a new mission: a field hospital for coronavirus patients

With students gone, U-Mary embraces a new mission: a field hospital for coronavirus patients

From the North Dakota coronavirus news roundup of the week: April 5-April 11 series

The University of Mary Fieldhouse normally hosts athletes and students playing intramural sports, but now 200 cots line the southern portion of the building, along with stacks of face masks, gloves and syringes.

The facility is in the early stages of being converted into a field hospital for coronavirus patients, one of two such locations in the state. Plans are underway for a similar setup at the Fargodome.

Gov. Doug Burgum hopes the state won’t need to use either. 

“Our fervent hope is that no North Dakotan ever has to step into one of those sites, and we don’t have to staff them,” he said at a press conference earlier this week.

The setup at U-Mary happened fast, said Jerome Richter, executive vice president of the university.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent out teams last week to assess potential sites in Bismarck and Fargo. Officials considered the Armory at Bismarck State College but nixed it because the space was too small, BSC President Larry Skogen said.

U-Mary, meanwhile, suggested that its Fieldhouse might work. Midweek, the team stopped by in the early afternoon to scope out the site.

“I thought they were just going to do a walk-through,” Richter said, but by 4 p.m. a colleague texted him a photo of plywood going down over the track.

Over the next few days, crews finished laying the plywood floor and set up the cots and other equipment. 

“By Friday afternoon, here it was,” Richter said, motioning to the vast sea of cots in front of him on a recent tour.

The scene in the Fieldhouse is reminiscent of the setup in the school’s McDowell Activity Center in 2009 when the university temporarily housed residents of Fargo nursing homes during the spring flooding season.

The school has continued its emergency preparedness through training from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“At the University of Mary, we stand by what we say: We’re ready to serve,” Richter said.

It’s unclear exactly how the makeshift hospital in the Fieldhouse might be used.

Burgum indicated it could become a “step-down” facility where some patients would recover from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.

“No one is going to be on a ventilator in the University of Mary gymnasium,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to deliver that kind of care. You could be staffed by volunteers almost.”

The Department of Emergency Services and the National Guard are making “surge” plans for North Dakota’s hospital facilities in case the state experiences a rapid increase of coronavirus cases requiring medical care. The idea is to ramp up the number of beds at hospitals and only turn to U-Mary and the Fargodome as a last resort.

Burgum on Tuesday said that the state has the capacity for more than 2,600 hospital beds without any field hospitals, and that less than 1% of the hospital beds in the state currently are being taken up by COVID-19 patients. Cases are expected to rise, but the state is working to "flatten the curve" to keep that expected increase below the existing capacity.

The governor has called upon retired and unemployed health care workers to step up and help during the pandemic, if necessary. The state is coordinating those positions, both paid and unpaid, through the newly formed Workforce Coordination Center.

While officials hash out the logistics for the U-Mary site, Richter envisions a few scenarios. The Fieldhouse locker rooms could be used as bathrooms for workers who staff the facility. Those workers could even stay in residence halls, if needed.

Although the school has switched to remote learning for the remainder of the semester, about 90 students still live on campus because it didn’t make sense for them to return to their family home living situations during the pandemic. If any coronavirus patients come to the Fieldhouse, the school would make it clear where students could and couldn’t go on campus to keep everyone safe, Richter said.

He anticipates the students will leave campus when the school year ends. U-Mary is holding its summer classes remotely.

So far, he has high praise for the state’s efforts at the Fieldhouse.

“It’s very impressive to pull this all together,” he said.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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