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Soldiers ready Sonoma State University as care site for coronavirus surge

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Two large, eight-wheeled military transport vehicles trundled into a large loading area Tuesday afternoon on the campus of Sonoma State University.

A handful of California National Guard soldiers guided the behemoths to circle, then directed the drivers as they backed onto a narrow sidewalk.

The trucks’ cawing reverse alarms clanged around campus — echoing off the sidewalk and nearby Student Center — as the loads neared the Recreation Center.

The choreographed process on a pleasant spring day belied a bracing new reality for the university, which is set to serve as a base for patient care in the county’s fight against the coronavirus.

The Rohnert Park campus, largely emptied after in-person classes were canceled last month, could soon be filled with hundreds of sick residents and other people at high risk should they contract the virus. The roughly two dozen from the 349th Quartermaster Company, based in Vallejo, were there Tuesday to prepare for that mission.

They made quick work unpacking more than 100 beds planned for coronavirus patients should a projected surge of cases overwhelm area hospitals. Earlier in the day, they worked to ready dorm rooms to serve as isolation or quarantine areas, and unloaded pallets full of medical supplies.

The unprecedented push to ready an alternate medical site at SSU comes as the county’s coronavirus caseload steadily climbs toward a peak that health officials say they expect at the end of May, when up to 1,500 local patients may need hospitalization at the same time.

Should that peak come, doctors and nurses will battle to save the sickest patients at area general hospitals while SSU will host those with more mild cases.

Nearby dormitories will be opened to house some of the county’s most vulnerable residents, including hundreds of elderly homeless people and those with underlying conditions.

SSU is one of the first in the California State University system to be designated as a surge site for coronavirus patients, and the university could earn up to $5 million from Sonoma County for its help during the crisis.

“This is all part of the governor’s initiative to try to find an extra 60,000-plus beds for that extra surge capacity,” said SSU spokesman Paul Gullixson.

The extra bed space represents an 84% increase over countywide hospital capacity, which is currently 689 beds, including 76  intensive care beds, according to the county. Hospitals plan to add at least 227 more rooms, including 64 ICU beds.

Along with the SSU Recreation Center, the county will use student housing near the university police station at Verdot Village, Sauvignon Village and Cooperage to serve as isolation and quarantine rooms for people awaiting test results or at-risk patients, according to the contract, which was finalized last week following two weeks of negotiations.

The county has agreed to thoroughly clean any SSU facilities before turning them back to the university.

California National Guard soldiers spent much of the day Tuesday removing furniture from dorm rooms, a step county officials said was necessary to ease cleaning after use.

“We want as few surfaces as possible,” said Tina Rivera, assistant director for Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Rivera is the county’s point person for the alternate care site, and she watched Tuesday as the massive military vehicles dropped off stacks of medical supplies, including personal protective equipment. The materials were then transferred via forklift to a staging area near the dorms.

Rivera said the county is preparing to initially house up to 110 patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 symptoms. About 30 needing moderate care would be housed at a small gym in the campus Recreation Center, and another 80 with more mild symptoms would occupy the larger gym.

The space could be increased to house as many as 206 patients if needed, officials have said.

“We don’t know how many of these beds will be actually used, but it’s good to have them available,” Gullixson said.

While the soldiers worked, the occasional passerby ventured along adjacent sidewalks. A dad with a stroller stopped to ask the obvious question: What is going on here?

There are 157 students left on a campus that typically holds up to 9,000. University officials hope to continue to winnow the list of remaining student residents with offers of housing and meal plan reimbursements.

Even if they stay, university leaders say they will be properly isolated from coronavirus patients and other campus guests.

At the Recreation Center, built for $15 million near the turn of the century, that will mean new restrictions: a two-story climbing wall will be off limits. So will other, more traditional exercise equipment, Gullixson said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to accurately reflect the number of students remaining on campus, as well as university offers to those remaining students.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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