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Fort Bliss imposes more coronavirus safety measures, builds mobile hospital as cases continue to rise

The William Beaumont Army Medical Center and the El Paso Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, which are located in the same facility at Fort Bliss, Texas, have partnered together to open a VA-owned mobile intensive care unit. The Department of Veterans Affairs shipped the mobile ICU from Florida to El Paso to expand patient capacity at the Fort Bliss medical center. Construction on the mobile unit, which will add 16 beds, is ongoing.

VINCENT BYRD/U.S. ARMY

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2020

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AUSTIN, Texas — Fort Bliss commanders increased safety measures at the base this week to prevent further spread of the coronavirus as the base hospital prepares a 16-bed mobile intensive care unit to treat the growing number of patients within the El Paso community.

“Without getting into details, I can say active cases continue to rise on Fort Bliss,” Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe, commander of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, said Tuesday night during an online town hall meeting to address concerns and explain new safety measures.

“The good news is I looked at the numbers this week, and while active cases are on the rise still on Fort Bliss, the rate of rise is not as steep as it was a week ago,” he said. “If we continue to double down on the basics, the wearing of masks, the physical distancing, the sanitization and hygiene, we might very well see the steepness of curve continue to lessen.”

In an order issued Thursday, new safety measures include soldiers wearing masks while riding in vehicles with people outside of their immediate family and increasing the distance between soldiers during morning physical training from 6 feet to 10. But morning physical training will continue.

Last month, El Paso, the city outside the gates of Fort Bliss, began to see a dramatic increase in the number of coronavirus cases. Positive cases peaked Saturday in the city, reaching 2,601 new cases in a single day. Cases had been declining since then, but rose Friday with 1,488 new cases reported, which is higher than the seven-day new case average of 1,405.

Fort Bliss officials have declined to reveal the number of virus cases on base, only saying cases have increased in part because the base’s 25,000 soldiers are intertwined with the community. Fort Bliss and El Paso began implementing a series of measures last month to curb the spread, including a 10 p.m. curfew and limits on social gatherings.

Now, Fort Bliss’s William Beaumont Army Medical Center is partnering with the El Paso VA Healthcare System to expand its capacity to treat patients eligible for care through the Defense Department or Department of Veterans Affairs. Since October, the base hospital has taken in several dozen eligible patients.

A VA-owned mobile intensive care unit arrived Monday from Florida and could be operational as early as next week, according to a news release from the El Paso VA, which has its main facility co-located within the Army medical center on base.

“VA’s mobile ICU hospital offers unique capabilities and affords veterans the same high standard of care in a state-of-the-art environment, while allowing the William Beaumont Army Medical Center to free up bed space,” said Dr. Paul Kim, executive director of the VA Office of Emergency Management. 

More than 40,000 veterans in the El Paso area qualify to receive services at William Beaumont medical center, according to the El Paso VA.

The Defense Department doesn’t release coronavirus data on specific locations, though it has seen reported cases rise by more than 3,200 each week for the past three weeks. In the previous three weeks, the weekly number of new cases remained below 2,200.

Overall, there have been 96,646 cases of coronavirus reported among service members, dependents and civilian employees and contractors, according to Pentagon information released Friday. Of those, 112 deaths have been reported.

Bernabe said the new safety measures update an Oct. 26 memo regarding coronavirus protocols. He said the new measures are a result of contact tracing at Fort Bliss that shows the increased cases stem from three main ways that the virus is spreading: community interaction, household spread and workplace clusters. 

“Contact tracing indicates [workplace spread] ties back to indiscipline of mask wear,” Bernabe said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Williams, the senior noncommissioned officer of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, said early morning formations and physical fitness training will continue because both help with accountability and readiness.

“Without maintaining proper accountability of our soldiers, we can’t properly take care of everyone and make sure everyone is all right. We’ll look our soldiers in the eye like leaders are supposed to and make sure they are holding up all right. We’ll talk to them about their families and how their children are doing,” he said.

Physical training will occur at the squad level, no more than 10 soldiers together, and they are told not to run in formation, Williams said.

None of the changes will impact training, Bernabe said.

“We have a responsibility to continue to main our readiness,” he said. “We’ve done a very good job with keeping infection down when it comes to training.”

Last week, Bernabe declared a public health emergency on base, which increased capabilities of William Beaumont medical center. Those new capabilities create flexibility in guidelines to ramp up care for more patients.

“We’ve moved into the adjacent VA facility to expand critical care beds into space normally operated by the VA,” Col. Michael S. Oshiki, commander of William Beaumont Army Medical Center, said during the town hall.

The emergency declaration also allows the hospital to adjust its patient-to-provider ratio to expand the number of patients it can serve, he said. However, it also lets the hospital accept volunteers to work in the facility with expedited privileges.

“We can bring volunteers from outside of the El Paso area, and get them on the front lines to take care of patients,” Oshiki said.

The hospital did not respond to questions about how much they’ve been able to expand capacity or services through these changes.

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori