A small, rural hospital in southern New Jersey now has the capacity to treat more critically ill patients, including those with coronavirus, and even has an army to help them.
This week, the Salem Medical Center announced it had completed renovations to increase its critical care capacity to 58 beds, adding to the 12 existing licensed ICU units. And on Monday, the staff lined the halls to welcome 28 active-duty Army soldiers, including doctors, nurses and clerks who came to assist in providing care.
But if and when that expected surge in coronavirus cases will come is unclear. The extra beds and additional help come as the state Department of Health reports a decline in overall hospitalizations in New Jersey over the past five days.
Gov. Phil Murphy said it is an indication that the spread of the virus is slowing.
As of Tuesday, Salem County — the least populated county in the state — reported just 127 positives cases of the virus and five deaths associated with it. Two of those deaths occurred at the hospital, Tammy Torres, the medical center CEO said.
Torres said her hospital, located in Mannington Township, Salem County, was designated by state officials as a key critical care facility in southern New Jersey. Cooper Hospital is the command post for South Jersey, but Salem is able to accept patients if there is a surge of illness.
The extra help from the military was arranged by officials at Cooper helping to coordinate the state pandemic response, a Salem hospital spokesman said.
“It demonstrates what their local community is doing to prepare for any COVID-19 in the area and have the confidence we are ready and that our staff is trained,” Torres said. “We are here for them.”
Currently, there are 32 total patients in the 126-bed hospital and 14 of them tested positive for the coronavirus, Torres said. One of those coronavirus positive patients was transferred from Cooper University Hospital in Camden on Tuesday, she said.
Last week, State Health Commissioner Judith Persichili said the northern part of the state may have already seen the peak of hospitalizations from COVID-19.
“As we look at the hospitalizations, we are seeing some flattening,” she said during the state’s daily coronavirus press briefing in Trenton on Friday. “We separate out the state into north, central and south, and we actually are seeing the transmission of the disease moving down the state.”
“In the north, we have seen the peak,” Persichilli added. “We have not seen it in central and south. And it’s coming.”
Torres said that’s why her hospital is preparing.
“That is the predictive model that was put out; that we would see a surge this week into next week,” she said. “That’s what all the preparation has been. That’s why we brought in the military earlier this week to get them prepared and be ready for anything that comes into our community.”
The Army medic unit will work with 250 doctors, 142 nurses who treat patients here.
Salem was in the process of renovating one of its four floors for a new psychiatric care unit. But once the coronavirus pandemic hit, officials were able to outfit the rooms with intensive care capability, including negative air pressure to help eliminate airborne bacteria.
Torres said Salem hopes to receive FEMA money to reimburse some of the cost to upgrade. She said her medical center still hopes to open the psychiatric unit this summer and believes the improvements will benefit the hospital going forward.
“In the future, we will have a higher level of care on all floors,” she said.
Health officials said Tuesday another 379 New Jersey residents have died of COVID-19, pushing the state’s death total to 4,753. At least 92,387 have tested positive since March 4, though 80 to 85% of cases are mild or moderate.