The Vermont National Guard quickly mobilized troops within the last week to complete the mission of turning the Robert E. Miller Expo Centre in Essex Junction’s Champlain Valley Exposition into a medical facility aimed to assist nearby hospitals amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The 400-bed unit will not provide care for patients diagnosed with COVID-19--but will instead admit those who need medical assistance for “slips, trips, and falls” according to Lt. Col. Chris Gookin, deputy state surgeon for the National Guard.
The surge site will be staffed by approximately 75 medical personnel including nurses, physician’s assistants, surgeons, and Army combat medics. While there will not be X-ray availability, there will be behavioral health, dentistry, and minor, ancillary medical jobs. Gookin added the hypothetical example of the site being able to serve as an extended-stay facility for an elderly patient who needed to go for an orthopedic injury but could not immediately return to a readily-available nursing home.
Maj. Jason Villemaire, base civil engineer for the Vermont Air National Guard, said they received their orders Wednesday afternoon, and within 24 hours, 27 guardsmen and women were on site getting to work. By Saturday’s media availability, there were 152 soldiers and airmen working from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. through Monday’s completion.
Villemaire said the first 150 beds, situated in the Expo North section of the building, would be finished and ready for the medical team to take over by Saturday night and available for patients on Sunday. Another 200 beds are to occupy the Expo South portion--where thousands of supporters were packed side-by-side just weeks ago for Bernie Sanders’ Super Tuesday rally. That area and the adjoining Blue Ribbon Pavillion, which consists of 50 isolation-pod beds, were expected to be done by Sunday night and ready to be utilized on Monday.
Additionally, the smaller room off of the pavilion is being used to store supplies--including facial masks, air tanks, mini fridges, and a multitude of surge protectors.
“We’re using every square inch of this building,” said Ken Gragg, deputy adjutant general for the Vermont National Guard.
Gragg also stated that the Guard would be tightening security around the building as of Sunday, but the public is still free to utilize the perimeter of the fairgrounds for running and dog walking.
The Guard’s construction consisted of building hallways with plywood and two-by-fours--and three-walled pods within those--wiring each pod to feed electricity, and extending plumbing for nurses’ stations and showers.
People with injuries are asked not to go directly to the Expo, or any of the other surge sites. Instead, they should seek out their local healthcare facility, and that unit will then screen and triage patients accordingly.
Soldiers from 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain) and airmen at the UVM Medical Center call center will assist in evaluating the issue and determining which is the best place for the person to go to--whether that’s the Essex site or those at UVM’s Patrick Gym (96 beds), St. Albans’ Collins-Perley Athletic Complex (50 beds), or the Barre Municipal Auditorium (50 beds).