Washington state works with the Pentagon to prepare for a wave of coronavirus cases

Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee discusses the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a bill-signing ceremony. (King County TV via YouTube)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says state officials are making joint preparations with the Defense Department to get more hospital beds and medical supplies ready for an expected rise in coronavirus cases.

During an Olympia news briefing, Inslee said he had a “very positive discussion” with Defense Secretary Mark Esper today about a coordinated response. “I would predict that we’re going to be getting real help from the Department of Defense, and that that will be necessary,” he told reporters.

Inslee said the Pentagon’s help will include more than 1,000 hospital beds that are coming in via the National Guard. “There are thousands [of beds] that we are likely to need,” the governor said.

Over the past week, Inslee has put a range of emergency measures into place to slow the spread of the outbreak, including closures of sit-down restaurants, bars and schools as well as a ban on sports and entertainment events and on social gatherings of more than 50 people. What’s more, many hospitals have postponed elective procedures to preserve capacity for COVID-19 cases.

Despite all those measures, public health officials worry that a rapid rise in cases requiring hospitalization could overwhelm the state’s medical facilities. As of today, more than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in Washington, which is nearly four times what the count was a week ago.

To help fill the supply gap, the Pentagon is freeing up 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators nationwide. Inslee said a change in federal policy has made infection hotspots like Washington state eligible for a bigger share of medical supplies from those federal stockpiles. The state is also procuring extra supplies through private distributors, Inslee said.

Vice President Mike Pence said today during a White House briefing that officials were making a nationwide inventory of military field hospitals, or MASH hospitals, that could be set up to serve coronavirus hotspots.

“We spoke with Gov. Inslee yesterday in Washington state,” Pence said. “We have resources in that part of the country that we can move. And as governors make these requests, we will process them, bring them to the president.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for the Army Corps of Engineers to erect the field hospitals, and in response, President Donald Trump acknowledged that was an option. “We’re dealing with the Army Corps of Engineers, should that be necessary,” Trump said during the White House briefing. “We have them working in some cases, on standby in other cases.”

Inslee said state officials were making an inventory of physical locations where additional beds could be set up.

“Most of the additional capacity is likely to be in existing buildings, using the additional beds and additional personnel,” Inslee said. “But we are looking at other potential sites if we have to stand up additional buildings or acquire existing buildings.”

The governor cited several types of buildings where medical facilities could be placed, including schools, dormitories, hotels and warehouses.

“The building is the least of our challenges,” Inslee said.

The bigger challenge has to do with bringing in additional doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to staff the additional facilities. Inslee said the state may seek to recruit retired medical professionals, or create expedited procedures for certifying medical workers coming in from other states.

“I would ask people out there who are medical professionals to start to think how they might be able to help us in this regard,” Inslee said. The state has already set up a website that lets people apply to become emergency volunteer health practitioners. Such practitioners may be paid or unpaid, depending on the policies of their host institutions.

Costs of the expanded medical operation will be covered by the state’s budget stabilization account, also known as the rainy day fund, under the terms of a $200 million emergency funding measure that Inslee signed into law today. Inslee said it was “very possible” that state lawmakers would have to be called back into a special session to approve additional funding.

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