Washington State Returns Unused Army Hospital As COVID-19 Curve Flattens

Last week, the Army scrambled to set up a 250-bed-capacity field hospital in an events center next to Seattle’s baseball stadium. This week, the state has decided it doesn’t need it.

It’s an indication of how dramatically the forecast for hospital demand has improved in Washington, which saw the country’s first known COVID-19 deaths at the end of February. In mid-March, when the state first requested the Army’s help, projections showed COVID-19 patients overwhelming local hospitals. But with aggressive social distancing rules and a clearing-out of many non-COVID-19 patients from the system, that fear has receded. According to one model, the state may have already passed the peak of COVID-19 hospital demand.

Still, in a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee warned against reading too much into the decision to give back the field hospital.

“We have to keep our guard up,” Inslee said. “We haven’t beat this virus yet, and until we do, it has the potential to spread rapidly if we don’t continue the measures we’ve put in place.”

The Army field hospital may have been more trouble than it was worth. Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, says transferring civilian patients to an Army facility involves “a ton of logistics,” and just setting up the field hospital meant multiple meetings every day for high-level state planners, many of whom had more urgent matters to attend to.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” Sauer says. “If we’d needed it, it would have been worthwhile.”

One problem was the plan for the Army hospital to take only patients without COVID-19, which was supposed to free up more beds in civilian hospitals for those who did have the disease. But civilian hospitals in the Seattle area have cancelled so many elective procedures, bed space is no longer an urgent problem. And Sauer says in the end not a single patient was transferred to the field hospital.

The state is now focused on building up its own overflow capacity, independent of the federal government. It just completed a deal to lease a recently shuttered medical center in central Washington, while cities and counties continue to expand housing for patients with milder cases of COVID-19.