FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Reuters) - It is not even 10 a.m. and Navy nurse Lieutenant Gretta Walker has already sent at least eight people for coronavirus screening at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Her colleague, Samantha Smith, a civilian nurse at the base hospital, said the pace of patients arriving over coronavirus concerns was rapidly picking up.
“Before, it was a trickle. Now it’s a steady flow,” Smith said, moments after directing another patient, who arrived without a mask, to the newly created coronavirus clinic.
Fort Belvoir, a massive, city-like Army base near Washington, has been a pioneer of sorts in America’s experience with the coronavirus. Belvoir’s base hospital was the first in the United States to admit a service member who tested positive for the respiratory virus.
Reuters was given broad access to the hospital on Wednesday, where preparations for a significant increase in cases were evident. Even outside on the hospital grounds, a yellow tent was set up for overflow screening, in case the designated emergency room areas become overwhelmed.
“We’ve made some significant adjustments to how we receive patients,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an interview after touring the base on Wednesday.
In just weeks, McCarthy has overseen a dramatic shift in priorities for the Army globally, which has troops at the centers of the virus outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and, increasingly, in the United States.
“The world is complex and dangerous on a good day. This is an extraordinary challenge that has been put on top of this,” he said.
The rapidly spreading coronavirus has infected almost 8,000 people in the United States and killed at least 146, paralyzing large sectors of the economy and upending daily life.
Testing is ramping up at Belvoir and bases across the nation.
On Tuesday alone, Belvoir’s hospital tested 18 people for the coronavirus - more than double the number over each of the preceding two days, a hospital official said.
But those results were not back by Wednesday morning - and tests still mostly take about three to four days to turn around, officials said, even after the U.S. military got involved in doing tests at its own laboratories.
That suggests that the Pentagon’s overall numbers for positive cases may be a lagging indicator of the health of the force.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon said 49 service members had tested positive for the coronavirus around the world, up by more than a third from the 36 reported a day earlier. Beyond those, 14 civilian employees, 19 dependents and seven contractors had tested positive.
The Pentagon says it expects U.S. troops, since they are younger and fitter, to fare better than the general population when they become sick. But the military communities that support them draw in people of all ages.
At Belvoir, patients with symptoms who are awaiting test results often return to their homes.
“If they are medically well enough, and they have a place where they can go at home, they should stay at home and isolate there,” one of the hospital officials said.
Like in much of the country, soldiers at Belvoir and their families are anxious.
They flooded the base store - the commissary - and emptied it of basic supplies, leading it to impose strict limits on hand sanitizer, toilet paper and cleaning materials.
In a virtual town hall, soldiers, their families and others who work at Belvoir raised questions about its handling of the crisis.
“The commissary is going to be your ground zero for the spread of COVID-19,” wrote Platoon Sergeant Michael Rogers, saying more than 50 people were there at a time. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Some service members asked why the child daycare was still open, something base leaders say is crucial to allow “mission-essential” personnel - like those at the hospital - to do their jobs during the day.
Others base families asked if playground equipment would be sanitized and were told to keep their children off it for now.
“It’s tough to keep little ones away when one is directly outside your window,” wrote Christine Ray, who lives on base.
Some voiced concern about the base hospital - whether it was safe to work there, go to appointments and pick up medication at the pharmacy. A base official responded that Belvoir’s hospital was as safe as any in the country.
“We are all in this together,” the official told the town hall, broadcast on Facebook.
Walker, the Navy nurse who was greeting patients in a respirator mask, said she felt comfortable with the safety procedures in place.
“Just don’t ask my mom,” Walker, 28, joked. “She’s like: ‘You should probably be tested. I’m like: ‘I’m fine.’”