Charleston VA’s COVID-19 area ready for patients, pumps in only fresh air

VIDEO: Charleston VA creates COVID-19 area

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston, which has not had any confirmed COVID-19 cases, now has an entire area dedicated for dozens of virus patients should they get them.

Engineers have created what is called the Co-Zone. There are three units inside that have 42 beds in total with the ability to expand to 62, and the air the patients and healthcare workers are breathing is fresh.

“Our Co-Zone is a negative pressure unit where we have air being pulled out, exhausted, vented, and filtered through a filtration system straight to the outside, so we’re not recycling any air that’s in the Co-Zone," Chief Engineer Dane Friedman said. “We’re only pumping 100-percent fresh air into the Co-Zone and trying to do everything we can to protect anyone that’s in that unit.”

The team of engineers, carpenters, and HVAC mechanics built barriers around the section. This was created to prevent any cross-contamination of air.

“All people enter through a clean anteroom, so we have a partition wall that people enter in. When they enter in, it gives them a place to put on their personal protective equipment before they cross through the anti-room exit barrier," Friedman said. “Once you cross over that barrier, you’re into what we call the Co-Zone.”

There then is a separate area called the exit anti-room. This space allows for everyone who entered, whether it be doctors, nurses, or the cleaning staff, to safely take off their protective equipment.

All staff has now been trained in the area, but it’s taken some work and collaboration to make it fully operational. For this staff, they have had time on their side. They still haven’t had a COVID-19 patient, so they were able to learn through practice not during a real response.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of tweaks and modifications. After we set up our unit, there were lessons learned throughout. The first barrier we put up wasn’t the best," Friedman said. "We had some issues with our installation and our construction of it where the staff wasn’t necessarily used to how to enter and exit these areas. So, we did get the opportunity to go back and build some stuff, make our barriers a lot more sturdy and durable for the duration of what we’re anticipating this pandemic to last.”

Friedman said it’s time other VAs didn’t have.

“They’ve had a little more surge there. Pretty much what they said is, ‘If this happens, there’s no time. You guys have to be prepared. You guys have to do what you need to do. Get it ready now. Don’t wait until you have a patient,’" Friedman said. “Lucky for us too, we’ve been able to spread what we’ve done in our facility to several other VAs not just here locally but across the country."

The barriers that block off this section and the equipment inside were bought years ago as the hospital planned for a possible outbreak of H1N1, also known as the swine flu.

“Our facility did take a look and say, ‘What can we do in case this spreads to become a pandemic? What kind of materials would we need? What kind of equipment would we need," Friedman said. "Now, while we did purchase that, we never had to actuate that. We never had to put it into fruition to see what we would actually have to do, how it would work, and any tweaks or modifications to the system that we would need to do. None of that happened until this last month when we have to set-up these Co-Zones.”

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