After governor's plea, federal medical personnel head for Pennsylvania to help hospitals

FEMA deploying dozens of military medical personnel to two Pennsylvania hospitals next week after request from Gov. Tom Wolf.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is deploying dozens of military medical personnel to two Pennsylvania hospitals next week after a request for help to fight the current COVID-19 surge.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration requested assistance from FEMA on Dec. 15 to support hospital staff and alleviate pressure from a surge in COVID-19 cases over the past month.

U.S. Army North announced Thursday it will send two teams to Pennsylvania: a 20-person team from the U.S. Air Force to support WellSpan Surgery & Rehabilitation Hospital in York and a 15-person team from the U.S. Air Force to support the Regional Hospital of Scranton.

“As U.S. Northern Command’s joint force land component command, our assigned joint forces – from the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force – are prepared and focused on this mission to know what it takes to save lives, alleviate suffering, and defeat this pandemic alongside our federal and community partners,” Lt. Gen. John Evans, U.S. Army North commander, said in a prepared statement.

U.S. Army North also will send troops to Arizona and Michigan and already has teams in Michigan, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico and Wisconsin. The military medical personnel dispatched include nurses, respiratory therapists, and medical doctors.

Pennsylvania Department of Health acting Secretary Keara Klinepeter said the focus in Scranton and York will be to increase acute care capacity by opening about 30 additional acute care beds between the two hospitals. The military “Strike Teams” are expected to arrive “on or around January 3” and stay for 30 days, Klinepeter said.

“We commend the Biden Administration for taking our requests for support seriously and acting quickly to address health system capacity in Pennsylvania,” Klinepeter said. “The Wolf Administration has worked closely with the federal government and health systems to provide necessary information for the feds to make their determination of how to best support the commonwealth. However, we know there is still work to be done to support this industry and we will continue to address the needs of hospitals and health care systems to provide the best care to our fellow Pennsylvanians.”

The help comes amid capacity concerns from hospitals and nursing homes across the state that are struggling with a surge of COVID-19 patients. The situation is resulting in long emergency room waits at some hospitals and staffing shortages at nursing homes, according to The Associated Press.

Pennsylvania’s nearly 9,000 new confirmed infections per day on average over the past two weeks is double the rate from late November, while the number of patients requiring hospital care – about 4,500 a day – is up 80% since last month, the news wire reported.

“This federal support will help alleviate pressure felt throughout the health system so there is more capacity to treat people who need hospital care,” said Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. “We will continue to work with our county emergency managers to ensure needed resources are met on a local level throughout the commonwealth.”

Klinepeter said the targeted federal help is in addition to broader measures the health department is focused on to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the flood of folks coming in to the state’s hospitals.

“We continue to work closely across Pennsylvania’s health care community to ensure these federal resources are felt not only in the communities receiving the deployment, but commonwealth-wide,” she said. “We must continue to support the health care community holistically, which means decreasing the number of people presenting at their local emergency departments while providing capacity to increase the number of patients discharged to other facilities when clinically appropriate. The federal support announced today is aligned with these goals, however, we know that this alone will not solve our capacity issues.

“The data is clear, by getting vaccinated against COVID-19, individuals are far less likely to be hospitalized after testing positive. We need all Pennsylvanians to do their part to support their local hospital and get through these winter months. This includes getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, testing when necessary, and staying home if you’re sick.”