University of New Orleans healthcare management professor Randy Kearns, whose expertise is disaster management, has been tapped by the Louisiana Department of Health to oversee an alternative health facility, also known as a “field hospital,” as part of the state’s COVID-19 response.
Currently, one field hospital is operating at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The state has designed and planned for the possible opening of two additional alternate health facilities in New Orleans, which has been one of the hardest hit areas in the state in terms of infections requiring hospitalization.
If the need arises for a second site, Kearns would be that facility’s administrator, formally called an incident commander. Kearns has more than 30 years in disaster and emergency management.
“Right now, it's only on paper but we are working each day to be sure we have managed all of the details so that if we are given an order to stand up the hospital, we are ready to go,” Kearns said. “The three sites include the convention center and two hotels close to the convention center.”
As the incident commander, Kearns said his job would be to make sure people have a “safe, efficient and effective place to be during the care of their illness if they are not critical and don’t need to be in one of the larger hospitals.”
The purpose of the alternative care facilities during a disaster is to absorb as many patients as possible that are not acutely ill or injured to take some of the pressure off the regular health care systems, Kearns said.
“The American health care system routinely operates at 90 to 95 percent capacity so there’s not a lot of room to absorb hundreds, or in this case, thousands of patients, without a lot of adjustments to the local hospital system,” Kearns said. “So what you do is build out these alternate care facilities.”
The field hospitals would be 1,000-bed facilities, which is maximum capacity, he said.
“The point is to be able to quickly scale up if that’s what you need to do,” Kearns said. “You want to stay in front of what the demand is, so we’ve paid a lot attention to what the statistical analyses have told us to be sure that our planning efforts were in front of what that demand would be.”
Kearns, who worked as a paramedic for a decade and spent eight years as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reservist responding to federally declared disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, is well versed in the many facets of trauma and crisis. His area of expertise is in healthcare management, policy, operations, disaster medicine and burn care.
He applauded local and state leaders response to the pandemic, including stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread.
“They have done just a tremendous job of how they responded to it,” Kearns said. “The local health care systems have done a great job of staying on top of it; elected leaders have done a great job of being proactive.”
Uncertainty, however, remains as to how long Kearns will be on stand-by as state health officials continue to monitor the coronavirus.
“Ideally it would end tomorrow, but that might not be realistic,” Kearns said regarding the pandemic. “Realistically, we’ve got to continue to evaluate the data and the science will ultimately drive some of the decisions. Right now we’re just taking it a day at a time and making sure that we are ready should things change.”