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COVID prompts Rex hospital to again put up tents outside its emergency department

The next time you go to the emergency room at UNC Rex hospital, you may end up waiting outside in a tent.

Rex put the tents up Monday under a vestibule just outside its emergency department. They will be used when waiting areas inside the building reach capacity, says Kim Boyer, director of emergency services.

This summer’s spike in COVID-19 patients, on top of the normal run of illnesses and injuries, has filled emergency departments at hospitals across the state. Tents are one of the ways hospitals are trying to adjust.

“I’m hoping that we don’t have to use them,” Boyer said. “But we want to be able to take care of the community. When we’re so backed up and overflowing, it’s hard to do that. We just need some extra space.”

Hospitals in the Triangle and across the country erected so-called triage tents outside their emergency departments in the spring of 2020, shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began. It was thought the tents would be used to help segregate contagious COVID-19 patients and also help handle the crush of patients that hospitals feared was coming.

Instead, COVID-19 spread far more slowly than expected, while at the same time people with other ailments began avoiding hospitals, particularly emergency departments. Tents that Rex and other hospitals put up last year largely went unused and eventually came down.

“We didn’t really need to use it,” Boyer said. “The difference this time is that we’re seeing an increase in COVID, but we’re also seeing an increase in non-COVID patients, getting back to our normal volumes, and that’s what makes it hard to handle.”

Rex is not alone. Duke Health erected two tents in the ambulance bay at Duke University Hospital early last month when the emergency department was pushed to its limits, said Dr. Lisa Pickett, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

“For the times when we suddenly have an influx of patients, we really just need more capacity, more space, so people aren’t out in the waiting room for hours waiting for help,” Pickett said.

Duke uses the tents to assess and treat patients it believes can be sent home, Pickett said.

“It gives us that space so that we have more room in the main ER for those patients who are more ill and likely to require hospitalization,” she said.

Rex more than 90% full

Rex doesn’t expect to use its tents to treat patients. If treatment areas inside the building exceed capacity, Boyer said, Rex would convert its waiting room to a treatment area and have more people wait in the tents.

As it is, Rex at times must keep patients on beds and stretchers in the hallways of the emergency department, while they wait for test results or for a bed to become free so they can be admitted. With the hospital more than 90% full, patients can wait several hours for a bed to open up, Boyer said.

Rex has taken other steps to free up beds and staff, said UNC Health spokesman Alan Wolf. It has cut by 20% the number of non-emergency surgeries and other procedures that would result in an overnight stay, Wolf said, and delayed the opening of a new Rex hospital in Holly Springs from this month until sometime in November.

Rex put up two square tents, each 18 feet on a side, with heat, air conditioning and hand-washing stations. Also delivered Monday were several portable toilets that people waiting inside the tents would use, rather than going inside the building.

“If we’re trying to separate people, the worst thing we could do is march everybody through to the bathroom,” Boyer said. “And while it might be a little tacky, it’s really more for safety.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He’s been a reporter or editor for 33 years, including the last 21 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, [email protected]

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