Feature   Defense News

Army Converts Local Chapel Into COVID-19 Medical Facility

May 18, 2020 | BY Bryan Gatchell

To combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, the U.S. Army Benelux Garrison and its mission partners converted the chapel at Caserne Daumerie in Chièvres, Belgium, into a medical holding facility in less than 30 days.

A chapel building at Caserne Daumerie.
Belgian Chapel
Teams from U.S. Army Garrison Benelux in Chievres, Belgium, and its mission partners converted a chapel building at Caserne Daumerie into a medical holding facility. Medical personnel at the facility will be able to treat service members suffering from COVID-19 while waiting for transport to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Photo By: Bryan Gatchell, Army
VIRIN: 200428-A-TR183-253

The garrison's intent was to repurpose an unused space for service members suffering from respiratory distress. The patients would stay at the holding facility until Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany was ready to receive them and travel arrangements were in place.

Caserne Daumerie is across the Grand Rue in Chièvres from Chièvres Air Base, the garrison's current headquarters. It has largely been inactive since most of its activities moved to the air base, making it an ideal location for standing up temporary COVID-19 response facilities. In addition to the medical holding facility, there are also quarantine and isolation facilities for service members arriving from COVID-19 hotspots.

Army Lt. Col. Anthony Rhea, the deputy commander for nursing care at SHAPE Healthcare Facility, described the impetus for setting up the facility.

"What can we do if this pandemic reaches a point where the Belgian health care system gets overwhelmed, and they cannot take care of our U.S./SHAPE/NATO community?" Rhea asked. "The Belgian government and the Belgian health care system did a good job of managing COVID-19 in their country to where we didn't reach the point where we thought we had to use this facility."

"It's a contingency plan," said Dwayne Key, the plans officer for USAG Benelux. "It's a plan for something that you hope you'll never have to use."

A chapel building at Caserne Daumerie.
Belgian Chapel
Teams from U.S. Army Garrison Benelux in Chievres, Belgium, and its mission partners converted a chapel building at Caserne Daumerie into a medical holding facility. Medical personnel at the facility will be able to treat service members suffering from COVID-19 while waiting for transport to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Photo By: Bryan Gatchell, Army
VIRIN: 200428-A-TR183-178

Key, along with other garrison organizations and mission partners, originally worked on the medical holding facility with the intent to establish a field hospital or combat support hospital. It was determined, however, that construction of a temporary hospital would require greater resources from U.S. Army Europe, possibly straining a medical system already combating COVID-19 throughout the theater.

Instead, the facility was designed as a waystation for the ill, able to accommodate as many as 10 personnel suffering intermediate to intense respiratory distress for a few hours.

"The great thing about this building is it's just a shell," Rhea said. "So let's say that for whatever reason [Regional Health Command Europe] can send a portion of a field hospital here to provide longer care in the facility. They can still do that."

Key said he was amazed at how rapidly everyone worked together to establish the hospital..

"From the day that we received our mission and the commander's intent, … it reached that initial stage of readiness in just under 30 days," he said.

Among the improvements to the building, plexiglass walls were erected to prevent the spread of the virus from bed to bed. Plastic sheeting was put up on all the remaining walls in the building. New flooring was put down. Electric capacity was increased to accommodate the medical equipment. An airflow unit was installed to filter the air and pressurize the interior to help decrease the risk of aggravating the patients' condition. A ramp that allows easier transport of patients on gurneys. A staff entrance and exit allows personnel to change their personal protective equipment and disinfect before entering and exiting the facility.

A chapel building at Caserne Daumerie.
Belgian Chapel
Teams from U.S. Army Garrison Benelux in Chievres, Belgium, and its mission partners converted a chapel building at Caserne Daumerie into a medical holding facility. Medical personnel at the facility will be able to treat service members suffering from COVID-19 while waiting for transport to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Photo By: Bryan Gatchell
VIRIN: 200428-A-TR183-078

These improvements took the Directorate of Public Works personnel three weeks to complete. Scott Chapman, the chief of business operations and integration for DPW, said the renovation was "a perfect example of how great teamwork makes wonderful things happen."

"DPW maintenance workers, supply technicians and engineers worked tirelessly together with SHAPE Healthcare employees to condense a six-week project into three," Chapman said.

Key said the modifications made to the building were not the end of the planning process. Plans included ways to support the lifesaving staff and the families of the affected service members.

"While the hospital or treatment facility was being built, the planning team was also putting together and standing up our abilities to execute those efforts as well," Key said. "So it wasn't just a singular focus. It was a broad look at what was the one thing that we would absolutely have to do, and then the other things that were essential to success after the first patient arrives."

In the Netherlands and in Belgium, the trend of daily new hospitalizations has steadily decreased since early April. Key said that given their team's ability to establish the facility so efficiently, expanding the capacity at Caserne Daumerie would be possible if the need arises.

Rhea said that judging by Belgium's capacity to manage the virus, he does not believe expansion would be necessary. Even if the number of hospitalizations were to swell in a second wave of infections, 10 beds are enough for the USAG Benelux community, he added.

"That should be sufficient for holding capability," he said. "For the size of the population that we support, for this particular virus, that should be sufficient."

(Bryan Gatchell is assigned to U.S. Army Garrison Benelux.)