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Following a three-week flurry of preparation, Saint Francis Hospital, in Charleston, West Virginia’s first and only COVID-19 surge hospital, was ready to receive patients Friday — five days before the number of coronavirus cases is projected to peak in the state.

“Hopefully, we’ll never have to use it,” said Brian Lilly, chief quality officer for Thomas Health, the umbrella organization under which Saint Francis and Thomas Memorial Hospital operate. “But if we do, we have the capability here now to handle whatever may come up.”

If the surge in West Virginia’s COVID-19 caseload turns out to be higher than anticipated, Saint Francis has reconfigured two floors and added enough beds and equipment to serve 96 coronavirus patients at a time, according to Lilly.

The new COVID-19 surge hospital is designed to treat coronavirus patients diagnosed at medical facilities across the state who are primarily in need of active short-term care or rehabilitation services and are referred to the Charleston facility by state public health officials.

Before being assigned beds in the surge unit, located on the fourth and fifth floors of the downtown hospital, incoming patients would have their vitals checked in a 12-space examination room on the ground floor.

Dan Lauffer, president and CEO of Thomas Health, praised a collaborative effort by a team of state and federal agencies for making it possible to bring the COVID-19 unit from concept stage to being ready to receive patients in less than one month.

The state Legislature, Governor’s Office, Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency helped produce the funding and operational plans needed to get the surge hospital going. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performed an assessment to determine that the building had the infrastructure needed to add the COVID-19 unit.

National Guard personnel also helped the hospital’s staff rewire the building’s communications system to accommodate additional bed space, and, with the help of the state Department of Transportation, trucked in and offloaded needed supplies, including four tractor-trailer loads of hospital beds from the recently closed Fairmont Regional Medical Center.

Before delivering a blessing for the new surge unit, Sister Barbara McCartney, of Thomas Health’s pastoral care department, noted that an earlier version of Saint Francis Hospital had served the Charleston area during the 1918 influenza pandemic, which claimed the lives of 2,818 West Virginians.

“This hospital has been in West Virginia for 107 years, and in the forefront of addressing the area’s health care needs,” McCartney said. “It’s no stranger to the front lines in times of need. To not respond to this time of need was not an option.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow

@rsteelhammer on Twitter.