A quick look inside Thailand’s field hospitals

A Covid-19 field hospital set up on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

With daily COVID-19 cases hitting successive record highs over the past few weeks, Thailand is now busy setting up field hospitals across the country.

Field hospitals have opened not just in red zones like Bangkok and Chiang Mai anymore but also, after the April 10-15 Songkran holiday, in smaller and rural provinces like Nan.

As of April 23, almost 20,000 people have been treated for COVID-19 infections. Thousands of them have been sent to field hospitals.

Stories of life inside field hospitals are many and varied. Some people have been discharged with fond memories, while others are less impressed.

The 4th field hospitals set up by Bangkok Metropolitan Administration at the Bangkok Arena stadium.

Diverse experiences

Former residents at a field hospital in Chiang Mai University have been pinning “Thank You” notes on a bulletin board as they leave. Their messages all share one theme – gratitude to the medical workers who have taken good care of them.

“Thank you for working so hard and being so nice to us,” says one appreciative note, before joking: “But I was hoping deep down for something other than a bowl of boiled rice for breakfast.”

However, one 20-year-old woman was appalled to find that a peeping tom had secretly taken her photo as she lay on her field-hospital bed and circulated it online. She was wearing shorts at the time and the picture was taken from a revealing angle, resulting in coarse comments from netizens.

“I feel horrible. After falling sick, I still had to face this harassment. It added to my stress,” she said. After the incident, she no longer felt safe at the place and successfully sought a transfer to another field hospital

Champion bodybuilder Chaipipat Liewtrakul is another who has shared his field-hospital experience.

To begin with, there was no crowding and everything was orderly, he said. The hall was spacious and the toilets were clean. However, as the place began to fill up with patients, the atmosphere changed.

“I am beginning to get worried about being reinfected. Newly arriving patients are coughing and there’s no partition,” he said.

But he also mentioned making new friends at the field hospital. To kill time, they have been making fun video clips to post online, assembling beds for others, and cleaning the place to aid hygiene efforts.

Thailand’s medical system facing its biggest test as virus surges back

With COVID-19 cases now rising by more than 1,000 per day, many Thais are wondering whether the country’s healthcare sector will crumble under the pressure. Despite the launch of field hospitals and “hospitels” (hotels turned into hospitals) concern is rising that the limited medical workforce may soon be overburdened.

What exactly is a field hospital?

Field hospitals are temporary facilities accommodating a large number of patients, set up under the guidance of the Medical Services Department and the Health Service Support Department. The beds are spaced to maintain social distancing, but there are generally no partitions between them.

During the current wave of COVID-19, field hospitals are reserved for people who have tested positive but have mild or no symptoms.

Field hospitals can be set up at various venues, as long as these have adequate facilities including toilets and proper ventilation. For example, they may operate from a temple, a stadium, or a school.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s newly opened fourth field hospital, for example, is based at the Bangkok Arena sports centre.

Field-hospital patients are provided with basic necessities such as a bed, a blanket, water and food.

Upon checking in, they must register themselves and read the guidelines for patients. They are asked to take care of themselves – by making their own bed, helping themselves when food boxes arrive, and checking their own body temperature, blood pressure, and more before reporting the readings to the medical staff in charge.

If they need medical attention, they can seek help. Although a field hospital generally has fewer medical staff than a hospital, both doctors and nurses are on duty. Some services are delivered online via digital platforms.

The Medical Services Department reports that each field hospital has one nurse for every 20-40 patients and one doctor per 100-200 patients.

Should any patient’s condition turn serious, they are transferred to a regular hospital, which is generally better equipped.

As daily COVID-19 infections surge, concerns mount over ICU capacity

As the daily number of Thailand’s new COVID-19 infections surged to a new high of 2,070 today (Friday), public health officials have expressed concern that existing ICU capacity will not cope with an expected increase in severe cases. Since the country’s first case, early last year, this is the first time new infections have exceeded 2,000 in any 24 hour period.

Are they good enough?

Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) spokesman Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin recently sought to reassure the public about field hospitals, calling them “not bad”.

“They have facilities to provide patients with a certain level of convenience,” he said. “They are appropriate places for people to receive COVID-19 care.”

He urged people to understand that not all COVID-19 cases needed regular hospital treatment, apparently targeting his message at people reluctant to stay in a field hospital.

Anan Jongkaewwattana, a Ph.D. virologist researcher at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, explained that while there was a possibility of patients at field hospitals reinfecting one another, the risk was low.

“People who have already been infected generally produce antiviral interferons that, in most cases, are enough to prevent reinfection,” he said.

Basic beds set up for detainees at a field hospital bu the Thai Immigration Police in Bangkok. (Photo by THAI IMMIGRATION POLICE)

A worldwide phenomenon

The CCSA started seriously communicating with the public about field hospitals in early January, or shortly after the second wave of local COVID-19 transmissions emerged with the Samut Sakhon as the hotspot.

Provincial governors were then told to identify venues that could be turned into temporary hospitals should the outbreak worsen and threaten to overwhelm local medical facilities.

Now, the country has been hit by a third wave, with each day bringing a four-digit rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Thailand is not the only country to use field hospitals in its battle against the pandemic, though. Even developed nations like Germany, the United States, and South Korea have opted for these temporary facilities to house patients.

The CCSA’s Taweesin said the world had learned something from Wuhan,the Chinese city where the very first cases of COVID-19 were reported.

“It was a sensation when it took Wuhan just seven days to build its field hospital [at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic],” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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