VA Maine Healthcare emergency room nurse Emily Fletcher, right, puts on gloves Tuesday before overseeing the removal of protective gear that doctors and nurses wore inside a tent erected at the campus to screen veterans for the coronavirus. Doctor Norman Guay, center, and nurse Jennifer Giarrizzo took off all protective gear and scrubbed down at the end of their shift in the tent. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

TOGUS — An external triage unit will handle the coronavirus cases — or potential ones — that come to the state’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The unit, housed inside a Maine National Guard tent in a parking lot, has been set up to provide a place to test for and begin treatment of veterans infected with or suspected to have the coronavirus. The move has been made to avoid exposing patients and workers inside the adjacent hospital to the virus.

VA Maine Healthcare nurses Jennifer Giarrizzo, center, and Marie-Anne James remove protective gear they wore inside a tent erected at the campus to screen veterans for coronavirus. The hospital staff took off all protective gear and scrubbed down at the end of their shift in the tent. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

VA Maine Healthcare-Togus opened the new makeshift triage facility Monday in hopes it will provide a safe place to test patients who may be infected with COVID-19. If they are found to have the virus, they will treat them there while awaiting admission to a hospital or transfer to another facility.

“The external triage unit was set up to maintain a brick and mortar emergency room that has not, to our knowledge, been exposed to COVID-19,” said Tracye B. Davis, medical center director for VA Maine Healthcare-Togus. “We are trying to segregate suspected or known infected patients with COVID-19 from those at low-to-no risk of infection. Thus, the external triage unit will allow us to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure to veteran patients and staff internal to the facility.”

The unit has so far seen three patients.

Davis said the unit is equipped to be able to initiate a mechanical ventilator on a veteran who is in respiratory distress or failure.

The large tent that contains the triage unit, a heating and ventilation system and lighting for it, were provided by and set up by the Maine National Guard. The Maine Emergency Management Agency linked the veterans’ hospital to the Guard after the medical center sought help establishing an exterior facility.

Last week, 11 airmen from the South Portland Air National Guard station, from the 243rd Engineering Installation Squadron and 265th Combat Communications Squadron, set up the facility.

“As community members ourselves, the Maine National Guard always considers it a privilege to serve the community at large,” said Maj. Carl Lamb, public affairs officer. “We are absolutely pleased to have been asked to perform a mission that positively impacts our neighbors that have worn our nation’s uniforms. We are all walking in their footsteps, and continue to learn from their example.”

So far, Lamb said, setting up the tent facility at Togus has been the Maine National Guard’s only direct mission related to the coronavirus. But he said they are operating under the assumption there will be additional requests for assistance, upon which they are ready to act.

VA Maine Healthcare emergency room nurse Emily Fletcher, right, oversees the removal of protective gear that Dr. Norman Guay, center, and nurses nurses Marie-Anne James, left, and Jennifer Giarrizzo wore Tuesday inside a tent erected at the campus to screen veterans for coronavirus. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The VA Maine Health Care System said Sunday it was initiating “emergency measures” after two veterans and one employee tested positive for coronavirus. Officials said they could not disclose whether the employee worked at Togus or the location of the patients.

All three patients are in isolation at home, the system said in an update on its website. The VA Maine employee tested positive Friday for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and was isolated in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Veterans concerned they are showing symptoms of the coronavirus, if they have an urgent need, are asked to contact VA Maine. Davis said they recommend the veteran contact their primary care provider, via secure message through “My HealtheVet.” Veterans may also call the VA during business hours, or call 877-421-8263 or 207-623-8411, ext. 7490 outside of those hours. A veteran experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency should call 911 and inform them of potential COVID-19 symptoms.

The veterans’ hospital at Togus is rescheduling any nonurgent elective surgeries and procedures until after June 1, the VA notes on a website where it provides updates to its operating status, if concerns over the coronavirus have passed by then.

While the facility remains open to provide healthcare to veterans, access to it has been restricted. When practical, patients are asked to consult with their healthcare providers virtually, through a video system or by telephone. Face-to-face appointments will still be available if a veteran is at risk of imminent harm by not seeing their healthcare provider, according to VA officials.

Visitors to the facility are not allowed in any site of care, and outpatients are encouraged to come to VA appointments alone if possible, though they may bring one adult family member or caregiver, who is not sick, with them. Entrances to the medical center and outpatient clinics will be limited and people entering will be screened for symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Patients are advised to allow extra time for screenings and getting to their appointments.

Davis said people at the VA are experiencing a range of emotions as they work through the pandemic.

“These are unprecedented times, and the biggest challenge is likely still ahead of us here in Maine,” she said. “However here at VA Maine, we are united in our mission to serve veterans.”


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