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As virus surges in Prince George’s, shuttered Laurel hospital will reopen

Ankith Deekolu, seen through a partition screen, mounts hardware for equipment and monitors as preparations are made to get Laurel Medical Center reopened as a hospital and outfitted to accept covid-19 patients. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

It took almost four years to downsize the beleaguered Laurel Regional Hospital, which went from a hospital to a walk-in medical center at the end of 2018.

It took only four weeks for the hospital to reopen as a destination for covid-19 patients.

“It’s monumental,” said Joseph Wright, who leads the University of Maryland Medical System’s regional hospitals. On Friday morning, he toured Laurel after visiting the system’s facility in Cheverly, which he said was “very busy and very stressed.”

Prince George’s, just outside the District, appears to have been hit harder by the novel coronavirus than any other county in Maryland, with 2,966 cases and 87 deaths reported as of Friday. Some hospitals have had to send patients elsewhere because their critical-care units were full.

The reopening of parts of the Laurel hospital will “redistribute the surge,” Wright said.

Starting next week Laurel will have 10 critical-care beds with ventilators and 36 “intermediate” beds without them. The facility aims to ultimately have 135 beds available, with 400 contracted medical workers.

“I expect we’ll have people from the other hospitals and our own emergency room immediately,” Wright said.

He and other hospital leaders could not say how many covid-19 patients have already come through Laurel’s emergency room and been sent to other facilities for treatment, though they are sure some have. Testing will not be done at Laurel, a spokesman said — it is designed for treatment of people who have already tested positive or exhibited severe symptoms without testing.

One nurse at Laurel previously said employees have not been told how many patients there have tested positive for the coronavirus in the existing outpatient facility.

UMMS spokeswoman Jania Matthews said the system’s policy is that any employee who was not wearing personal protective equipment when they were exposed to a covid-19 patient would have been alerted.

Unlike other hospitals, leaders say Laurel is blessed with sufficient supplies of that equipment, in part thanks to community donations. Staffers wore full-body protection when transporting beds from shipping pallets into hospital rooms. Designed specifically for the pandemic, the intensive care units have monitors that allow nurses to check patients’ vital signs without entering the room.

“The ability to continuously remotely monitor” is key, Wright said, because covid-19 patients “can decompensate quickly” and need to be moved to intensive care.

Prince George’s hospitals see influx of critical covid-19 patients

He was particularly excited to point out a staff innovation already implemented at the hospital in Cheverly — a “serenity room” with relaxing music and low lighting where medical workers can go to decompress.

“It’s a key indicator of how the staff is rising,” he said. “They’re going to have to take care of each other through this surge.”

Laurel’s hospital was taken over by the University of Maryland Medical System and downsized in 2018, a controversial decision made by then-owner Dimensions Healthcare amid serious financial trouble and declining admissions. The state, which directed the reopening, is paying the bill for the conversion of shuttered floors into a pandemic facility.

Medical staff have come to Laurel from parts of the country not hit as hard by the virus; they will spend the weekend running through plans and potential crisis situations.

Lisa Brown, an ICU nurse from Dallas, said she drove to Maryland from Texas to be part of the effort, after the heart hospital she normally works at stopped doing surgeries during the pandemic.

“I’m respectful of the virus,” Brown said when asked whether she was scared by the prospect of working with covid-19 patients for the first time. “I’m very grateful for the PPE.”

Other new staff include traveling nurses who have been fighting the virus in hospitals across the country.

Jennifer Sorce came from a covid-19 unit in Pittsburgh, which she said wasn’t as overwhelmed by the pandemic. (Allegheny County has reported 947 cases and 43 deaths.)

“I feel honored” to be in a hospital unit focused exclusively on covid-19, Sorce said. “I’m excited to get to use my skills.”

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