In a cavernous room at the San Mateo County Event Center, 250 hospital beds lie waiting for an emergency that county officials hope will never come.
County officials showed off the new treatment center for the novel coronavirus pandemic to reporters on Wednesday. The narrow beds inside have been placed 6 feet apart, with spare linens and pillows and bags of supplies, to take on overflow from hospitals or people who can’t go home for fear of exposing an elderly parent to the deadly virus.
“This is the challenge of our generation,” San Mateo County Manager Mike Callagy said. “Every generation has a challenge in some way and this is ours. And this is a great example, this medical station here, of what we can do when we all work together.”
The treatment center was constructed with the assistance of the California Air National Guard. It is the fourth site statewide where they’ve established such a treatment center after setting them up in Santa Clara County, Los Angeles and Coachella.
The next will be in Contra Costa County, where the National Guard was doing a site survey on Wednesday. The National Guard has also been deployed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to assist in food banks and other medical capacity, according to Lt. Col. Shane Patty.
“We are 100 percent committed to supporting the citizens of California,” Patty said. “This is why we wear the uniform day in and day out to support our state mission.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed the San Mateo site for suitability prior to placing the treatment center there, including making sure it had adequate temperature control, ventilation and lighting.
The equipment comes from the Strategic National Stockpile, which has general equipment not tailored to this particular emergency. So, for example, the center includes a room of low cribs for young children.
Travis Kusman, the San Mateo County director of emergency medical services, said that while both old and young people are generally considered to be most at risk from infectious diseases, in the case of COVID-19 the most vulnerable are older folks. Still, the cribs could come in handy for keeping families together, he said.
So far county officials aren’t sure if, or when, the site will be ready for use or if it will even need to be used.
The big challenge in getting the site up and running, if necessary, will be finding staff, Kusman said. The number of required staff will depend on how many patients come in to the facility and how sick they are.
For the most part, no one accepted at the site will be suffering from severe illness. No one accepted at the site will require a ventilator as it is not equipped for intensive care patients, so they would stay at hospitals while patients who are less sick would be housed at the event center.
Still, because it would be need round the clock staffing, taking in even a fifth of the center’s capacity would require dozens of staffers.
To that end, the county is looking into bringing in staff who are retired, nursing students who have not finished all of their graduation requirements and paramedics, in accordance with Newsom waiving certain licensing and certification requirements this week. They are also soliciting volunteers.
But if residents of the county and region continue to follow social distancing guidelines, Kusman said the facility may never need to open.
“We’re hopeful this facility will never have to be used,” Kusman said. “We’re as prepared as we can be given the circumstances and again the goal here is to do everything we possibly can as a community to avoid the surge.”
Another possibility is that the equipment at the site could be diverted elsewhere, for example a hospital establishing a tented facility that needs extra beds. With all the equipment laid out and organized it could be mobilized quickly.
“The flexibility and the scalability in our operations is tremendously important,” Kusman said.
The county is building a roster of volunteers and raising money for its response. Anyone interested in volunteering or donating can do so on smcgov.org.