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New Meritus wing to aid COVID patients opens

Meritus Health on Monday demonstrated its commitment of working through the COVID-19 pandemic by formally opening a new infection containment wing that provides an additional 20 beds for coronavirus patients.

In more ways than one, it was evident that the community was in the midst of a pandemic.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new wing at Meritus Medical Center was held outside in a tent, and about 50 guests donned masks as dignitaries spoke.

Signs on tables and outside of the tent reminded everyone about social distancing.

The wing was built in anticipation of a second wave of COVID-19, said Maulik Joshi, president and chief executive officer of Meritus Health, which is the hospital's parent company.

Although the "numbers are scary" as the rest of the country deals with the pandemic, Joshi said the local community has been fortunate in dealing with the disease.

Joshi said the county's positivity rate — the rate at which people have tested positive for COVID-19 — has been averaging about 4%.

While the hospital has a surge plan for 100 extra beds to take care of COVID-19 patients if needed, the most patients the hospital has had at one time is 15, Joshi said.

"Now, we have 120 more beds if we need them," he said after Monday's ceremony.

Joshi said the hospital has been admitting one to two people per day for the disease since March.

While he feels fortunate about how the community has dealt with the disease, he thinks about the struggles in other parts of the country.

"I feel a little like it's the first of March again. We're all in a hyper-vigilant state," he said.

One of the features in the new unit is a "negative pressure" environment.

Unlike more conventional air-handling systems, the negative pressure system in the wing will pump air into the facility, then lift it into a filtering system, said Heather Markell, a clinical manager at the hospital.

The air then will go to an air-exchange system on the roof and out of the building, Markell said.

The facility also has various touchless features and an Android-based TV system that will allow patients to also view educational videos and arrange for room service.

The new wing, which cost $12.5 million to build, is expected to begin taking patients at the end of the month.

Dignitaries remarked at the speed — four months — in which the wing was constructed.

"It just shows you what can be done when folks work together," said Del. William Wivell, R-Washington.

"I tell you what. Meritus is an amazing health care system," Washington County Commissioner Randy Wagner said.

He compared the completion time to the work he does in the real estate business.

"We'd still be on the site plan by now," he said.

Joshi said the quick construction schedule was accomplished by setting the goal and "working backwards."

Such a project typically involves "meetings and meetings and meetings" and committees, Joshi said.

But this time, there was little input and the work got underway, he said.

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