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Maj. Steven Henkels is recently returned from a stint as a critical care nurse with the Army Reserves in Edison, N.J., one the nation’s hotspots for the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

“Starting with the very first patient, who was COVID-19 positive, all of our patients have had COVID-19.”

Maj. Steven Henkels, a long-serving volunteer with the Mound Fire Department, is recently returned to Minnesota after an assignment with the Army Reserves that took him east to coronavirus hotspot New Jersey.

Henkels is a critical care nurse and was deployed March 31 to a field hospital in Edison, N.J., one of three such mobile hospitals in the state which has seen one of the highest counts of COVID-19 patients in the country.

“The greatest utility of the military in this case was how professionals from places that were not COVID hotspots could be deployed to be used where most necessary,” said Henkels. “It would have been of much lesser value if the Reservists were taken from their civilian jobs in the hotspot areas where they could not be as easily spared and exacerbate local personnel shortages.”

The military created multiple Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces like the one to which Henkels was assigned as a specific response to COVID-19, able to provide “an expeditionary, deployable, and scalable medical staff” to those areas hardest hit by the virus.

As of press time May 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported New Jersey’s total case count at 146,334 cases, with the number of deaths at 10,356. New Jersey has long been second only to New York state in number of cases.

The 500-bed field hospital where Henkels was deployed, set up in Edison’s Convention Center, has been accepting COVID-19 patients ever since it opened April 11, although the site was initially intended for patients without the disease.

The 17 hospitals that Henkels and others with his task force were supporting had larger shares of COVID-19 patients; by accepting the overflow, the Edison facility could better ease the patient burden on these hospitals, said Henkels, who added that the facility didn’t have the means to isolate COVID patients from non-COVID patients. “Once we had COVID patients we really could no longer take non-COVID patients without a great risk of cross contamination.”

While in Edison, Henkels said the facility was largely empty, that of those 500 beds the highest number of patients only ever reached 25 and that most days there were only 10 beds filled, all of them with low-acuity patients discharged from regular hospitals and who stayed on in large part because of oxygen needs.

“All of the patients that were admitted to the field medical station were discharged to us from regular hospitals. Some had had very prolonged stays there, but by the time they were sent to us they had mostly recovered,” said Henkels.

“Some needed more assistance even after getting them off supplemental oxygen or they did not have an environment that was conducive to quarantine, such as young children or very old family members at home that should not be exposed to COVID,” he said. “We could send them to the ‘Corona Hotel’ for further convalescent time until they were safe to return home.”

Henkels has been a critical care nurse for the past 20 years, and his connection with the Army extends even farther back, to his enlistment as a medic from 1987-’93. He returned to the Army as a commissioned officer and critical care nurse in 2006. His most recent assignment, before Edison, was a 9-month tour in Kuwait that ended last May.

Still, the coronavirus isn’t called novel for no reason: “It is different for sure,” said Henkels of his experience in treating patients at the field hospital.

“My patients in Afghanistan were mostly poly-trauma combat injuries, while my patients in Kuwait were also of low acuity but not extremely infectious,” he said. “As far as patients I see as part of a Mound Fire EMS response, they cover the spectrum from minimal care needed to severe trauma or in need of lifesaving interventions.”

Though Henkels could not talk about patients or specifics in operations, he did emphasize that the “universal gratitude [patients] expressed when being discharged was sometimes overwhelming.”

Henkels, who said he missed his family while out east but that having a mere one-hour time differnece was a nice change from previous deployments, returned to Minnesota earlier this month and is now finishing out a two-week period of quarantine.

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