Bethesda Hospital readied in days to accept COVID-19 patients

An empty hospital room.
A hospital room with a negative air pressure setup sits ready for a COVID-19 patient at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul on Thursday. The negative air pressure setup pulls air outdoors, rather than filtering back into the hospital.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 5:36 p.m.

In a flurry of construction, most of it over 72 hours, Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul has become a specialty center for the most severe COVID-19 cases. The first patients are expected to arrive from other M Health Fairview facilities beginning Thursday afternoon.

In the morning, construction crews were making last-minute changes. The transformation shows how quickly the epidemic has forced health care systems to find additional space to isolate people recovering from the illness caused by the coronavirus. Minnesota officials say dozens of people have been hospitalized, a number that increases daily.

“The bricks and mortar changed a little, but the program offerings and what we can give is completely different,” said Dr. Brian Amdahl, vice president of medical affairs with Fairview Health Services. “The big transition though is what you can’t take a picture of, the level of expertise that’s in here. We now have in-house intensive care unit doctors, researchers, hospitalists, registered nurse anesthetists, these patients will have access to the NIH drug trials that the university is participating in.”

Until last Friday, Bethesda was a long-term acute care hospital. The system transferred around 45 patients to other facilities.

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The refurbished hospital has a total of 90 beds and 55 patient rooms, 35 of which are ICU patient rooms. There are 35 ventilators in the building, one for each ICU room.

Facilities staff using industrial-type fans and HVAC know-how added negative airflow to the ICUs. The upgrade helps to make sure air from a patient’s room is not recirculated within the hospital.

Other spaces have new uses and renovations required by coronavirus care. A former gym in the basement is now a radiology room. Crews pulled carpets up and replaced them with linoleum to ease cleaning.

Around the hospital, makeshift signs on doors directing workers to scrubs and radiologist offices. Teams of doctors and nurses walked around to get familiar with the rooms and what they’ll be used for.

Correction (March 26, 2020): A previous version did not accurately state the number of negative airflow rooms in the hospital's renovated state. The above story has been corrected.