Chief medical officer of Memphis COVID-19 overflow hospital working to prepare for potential activation

Updated: Jul. 31, 2020 at 5:57 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The $51.3 million alternative care facility remains on standby but Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s Unified Command Group could send word to open it at any time if the region’s hospitals become overwhelmed.

The facility’s chief medical officer said as we move into late summer and fall that good hand hygiene, social distancing, and mask wearing could help ensure the facility never sees a patient.

“Every challenge is something to be cherished. You learn a lot along the way. At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that our community is well-served,” said Dr. Amik Sodhi.

Dr. Sodhi is a pulmonologist and critical care physician at UTHSC as well as interim chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine. She was tapped as chief medical officer of the state’s COVID-19 hospital in Memphis.

That means she’s head of the medical staff, charged with the well-being of everyone at the facility from employees to patients.

“What we have to keep in mind is that this hospital is really a disaster facility. It’s meant to provide some overflow capacity for our regional hospitals but by no means is a replacement for hospitals in the city,” she said.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee visited the area in May when construction crews finished the 400-bed hospital inside the old Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis helped lead the selection of the site and oversaw the construction process.

Dr. Sodhi said if activated, the site will provide offload capability for area hospitals, taking in patients who need care but are not critically ill.

She said the state has a contract with a national staffing company to provide physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists there. The goal is to not deplete the local pool of medical personnel available for work.

“We do not want to worsen the local nursing or staffing shortage, and so we are very acutely aware of that,” she said.

Sodhi credits masking requirements in Memphis and Shelby County with blunting the impact of recent infections, which raised alarm in early July.

“We are seeing a slight slowdown in the case counts and hospitalizations. Hospitalizations have stabilized somewhat, and that curve isn’t looking quite as scary as it was a couple of weeks back,” she said.

But she cautioned the area is far from being out of the woods.

She said this fall may be a time of concern where hospitals are stretched, and it’s up to the community to continue to take the pandemic seriously.

“Hopefully, we’ll get this under control, and the site will never have to come online. But if we fall behind, especially in terms of using masks and hand hygiene and social distancing and get lax, then there is a possibility that especially going into fall with flu season and other respiratory viruses that are around during that season that we may overwhelm our capacity,” she said. “And so, that’s a situation that we want to try and avoid.”

Sodhi said working during the pandemic has been humbling and challenging. But she and her colleagues consider it a privilege.

“It’s tested our reserves. It’s tested our resiliency,” she said, “We are exhausted. But we are really proud to be able to provide this service.”

Dr. Sodhi and other UTHSC officials leading the facility are part of regular conversations with the state about the COVID-19 situation locally. She said an activation decision is less about numbers and more about how quickly cases are increasing.

The state of Tennessee said Friday the ACS remains on standby, and Unified Command is prepared to activate if necessary.

“The Governor’s Unified Command Group is monitoring the increases in COVID-19 case numbers, is workIng with the Tennessee Hospital Association on capacity planning, and is prepared to make additional patient beds available, which includes activating the COVID-19 care sites in Memphis and in Nashville if necessary,” wrote Dean Flener, with TEMA in response to a WMC Action News 5 inquiry.

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