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'Whatever the mission needs' | Military task force helps South Texas hospital battle surge in coronavirus patients

Military service men and women from across the nation joined a task force dedicated to treat COVID-19 patients in Texas.

HARLINGEN, Texas — They're in the second month of service. Military service men and women from across the nation joined a task force dedicated to treat COVID-19 patients in Texas.

The task force is run by the U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North. The response comes from the America's Navy and U.S. Army Reserve.

“We're like, ‘OK, let's do it.’ We're here to provide support to the community and wherever they need. We're here [for] whatever the mission needs,” said Lt. Charlene Calma, Navy nurse.

Calma joined the Navy seven years ago. Her father served as a corpsman for 20 years. Today, her sister and husband also give service in the Navy.

However, it was Calma who was assigned to Harlingen in the Rio Grande Valley, where hospitals were at 120% full.

“We look at patients with acuity. So, you may have a lower ratio right now with a COVID-19 patient, but the acuity is much higher than what they're used to. So you can be stretched by numbers or you can be stretched by the severity of the illness, the complexity of not having family here with visitation, the phone calls. So, it really has stretched all of us in multiple different ways,” said Stephen Hill, chief nursing officer, Valley Baptist Medical Center.

He said that impacts patient care.

Credit: TEGNA
Everyone is screened when they enter the hospital. Temperatures checked.

The military integrated with the hospital medical staff. It added more than 100 people – physicians, advanced care practitioners, certified registered nurse anesthetists, nurses, pharmacists, X-ray technicians and respiratory therapy technicians.

Calma worked in the Enhance Precautionary Unit, one step below intensive care.

“Here, we feel like this is our workplace. We're nurses. This is a hospital. We feel like we're like their family,” said Calma.

Harlingen has two of the four hospitals in Cameron County. Valley Baptist is one of the larger ones.

As of Sept. 3, Cameron County reports 621 deaths. Hill said that number would have been higher if the military didn’t help.

“The word would've been 'catastrophic,'” said Hill. “It would have been a very, very different picture than what you're seeing now, and not for the better.”

Hill said the short-term acute care hospital had 283 COVID-19 patients around the time Calma arrived.

“It’s busier but, you know, the best thing is just protecting yourself and doing your day-to-day patient care,” said Calma.

The COVID-19 cases in Cameron County are starting to go down. Hospitals are still at capacity, but the rate of admission is lower.

Calma doesn’t know how long she’ll serve in Texas, but knows she’s learning more about herself while she’s there.

“Being resilient … just being helpful to the community,” said Calma.

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