One of the first things the Baker administration did in anticipation of the surge in coronavirus cases was open a series of field hospitals to handle overflow from local intensive care units. One of the biggest facilities was set up at the Boston Convention Center as part of a partnership between the city, state, Partners HealthCare and Boston Health Care for the Homeless. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with the person who led the effort, General Jack Hammond, to learn more about how the facility is treating patients. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: It's great to talk to you again. Thank you for saying "yes" when the governor asked.
Gen. Jack Hammond: Well, with things going like they are, there really is only one answer you can respond with. Thinking of the human suffering out there, anything I could do I wanted to be able to at least reach out and do my best.
Mathieu: I can only assume that the field hospital is serving its purpose, General. The numbers that we see show that ICU beds are not yet full, but your facility is beginning to fill up. What's the latest there?
Hammond: It looks like ... about 290 total folks have come in. And what's great is as folks are getting better, we're actually discharging some folks. I think we discharged close to 20 people yesterday, which is a great news story. Some of these folks are coming in pretty sick, having been on ventilators and really gone through the ringer physically. This is a very aggressive virus that really knocks the hell out of people when they're down in the hospital, and so one of the things we started looking at at Boston Hope is working on that physical rehab, occupational therapy. We brought folks from Spaulding Rehab Mass. General in to help assist the patients. As they get better and strong enough to start working on their recovery, we want to help set the conditions for a really successful transition back to home.
Mathieu: Give us a sense of what it's like inside that facility when somebody is admitted. What do the rooms look like? We've seen images of essentially cubicles with a massive ceiling above it. I'm assuming this does not feel like a normal hospital experience.
Hammond: No, that's one thing it doesn't feel like. As you can imagine, there's a beautiful glass catwalk that before the patients got there you could look down on. Now there's a curtain to prevent that and provide patient privacy. But on the one side, you've got 500 beds in there. Each one's an individual room for the COVID respite group, which are folks that need to have some type of isolation or sheltering so that they don't go and spread the disease back wherever their community is. The second one is an actual field hospital staffed by doctors, nurses and specialists. The rooms themselves were built [in] a Herculean feat. Suffolk Construction, working with some local groups, had three shifts a day working eight-hour shifts. They built a thousand rooms and they're made out of sheet rock — three walls of sheet rock — that are placed on rails. Each one has power into it, and I believe 200 of the rooms have oxygen lines that run into the rooms. So it's pretty comprehensive. Then in between, we've basically designed 10 pods of 48 patients. Each pod has a nursing station and then we staff up according to each pod. So we built a formula of care providers to treat each pod. As we grew pods and we grew staff and trained them, we brought up a pod online, opened the door to another 48 patients and we're continuing to grow.
Mathieu: That's incredible, General. And I understand that to get this done, you had to somehow convince dogs and cats to live and work together in the process. You had union workers and non-union workers working side-by-side. You had Republicans and Democrats, in the case of the mayor and the governor, working together on this. And I also read that somehow — I'm sure with the help of our government leaders — you found a way to have state and local police figure out jurisdiction in the seaport district. My goodness, that's quite an accomplishment.
Hammond: Well, it just goes to show you, first of all, people are good in general. When you see others in dire need, people can pull together and it gives you hope. Everybody worked together. I think one of the first things the mayor said to me was everybody has to check their ego at the door. There's people's lives at stake, and he said, "Let me know if anyone acts up and I'll have a word with them." I never had to make that call. And you know the mayor — if somebody acted up he would have gone after them. But there's been no need because everybody's done their jobs. More importantly, beyond doing their job, they're saying, What else can you do? And the folks at the convention center couldn't be more accommodating. I think we got it right here.
Mathieu: General, you were deployed to New Orleans to help with security after Hurricane Katrina, and I wonder how that experience might have helped you prepare for this.
Hammond: Well, I think the number one thing that taught me was you have to get out in front of these things, and it would be so much better if you built up all these resources and you didn't need them. I saw what happened when they waited, and it was a tragedy. We looked at it then and we all said we could do better than this, than have people stranded on houses, having folks living in the Astrodome and all the rest of those places. It was horrific. And in that particular case, we knew that hurricane was coming five days before it hit and we did not take the action.
I want to commend both the governor and the mayor for leaning into this, and especially our friends at Partners Healthcare for saying, We're going to lead the effort on the clinical side here and we're going to put the funds forward to build a thousand-bed, thousand-room facility here in the city to help take pressure off these hospitals, to always make sure our most acute patients can get the care they need.
Mathieu: Well, it's a pretty inspiring story, and I wonder what your plans are for running this into the future. Do you have a timeline on how long this will be in place or as Dr. Anthony Fauci says, the virus will dictate the timeline?
Hammond: Well, the virus dictates the timeline, but I learned a long time in the military plan to planned upon. So we put up what we call in the military a future plans team that's starting to look at what would the next phases look like. We're working with FEMA to get their read on what they see as far as a second wave, a third wave and those things, as well as the folks at Partners at MGH. They've had teams working on modeling this going back to February. Partners has been working on these issues trying to figure out how to best handle this. So as we work with each of these groups, we're going to develop what we call the Phase 5 reconsolidation and retrograde operations to see, what do we do? Do do we disassemble this? Do we do we shutter it and hold on to it for a couple of months in case we get hit? A lot of that's based on how the curve gets bent and then how people respond because as we know, it's one thing to get through this next wave. If people jump right back into their old ways and all of a sudden this thing blows up a second time, Lord knows how bad that's going to be.