As Africa braces for the next wave of the global coronavirus pandemic, three U.S.-donated mobile hospitals with medics trained by U.S. forces are helping Ghana, Senegal and Uganda respond to local outbreaks.
The U.N.-standard level-2 hospitals are receiving patients and are each equipped with three or four ventilators, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) officials said in an exclusive VOA interview.
Ghana, which has nearly 600 coronavirus cases, has deployed its hospital in the Accra suburbs and is using it to treat COVID-positive patients.
For now, Senegal and Uganda have deployed their mobile hospitals for overflow, AFRICOM's deputy command surgeon Col. Krystal Murphy told VOA, taking in non-coronavirus patients to free up local hospital beds and local medical professionals so they can devote more of their resources to isolating and treating those with the virus.
However, Senegalese and Ugandan officials could shift that plan based on demand, as military-provided medical assets in New York City changed from treating non-COVID patients to COVID patients.
"I'm more than confident that if they have to take care of COVID patients within these facilities, they will be able to do that," U.S. Africa Command International Health Specialist Maj. Mohamed Diallo said.
Coronavirus case counts have risen exponentially in Africa, with the number of confirmed cases surpassing 10,000 last week. Public health officials worry that this is just the beginning and fear the continent lacks the doctors and equipment needed to combat a pandemic.
"It's probably fortunate that Africa is in one of the last waves," Murphy said. "They do not have the critical care capability, probably, of a lot of their Western colleagues or their Asian colleagues."
The mobile hospitals are foldable tent facilities equipped with medical supplies that can be stored in Conex boxes.
Each one has 20 beds for inpatients and can treat up to 40 outpatients per day, providing damage control surgery, post-operative services, intensive care units, orthopedic surgery, diagnostic imaging, laboratory services, dental services and preventive medicine, according to Diallo. Military teams of four to five service members have trained local medics to use the deployable facilities.
"It's like receiving a package from Amazon, and then somebody comes in afterwards and shows you how to set up the thing you just bought from Amazon," Murphy said.
A total of four hospitals went to Ghana, Senegal, Uganda and Rwanda as part of a State Department initiative under the Obama administration called the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership. A goal of the multiyear initiative was to provide these nations – identified as instrumental in U.N.-African Union peacekeeping missions – with additional ability for casualty care.
"These hospitals, when they were turned over to these four countries, were meant for an international deployment, not for a local use. But since the (COVID) crisis occurred as a domestic issue for each one of these countries, it was permitted for them to go ahead and deploy them within their own countries," said Maj. Mathew Rodeck, the program manager for the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership.
The increase in coronavirus cases on the continent could pose an increased risk to U.S. troops deployed to Africa. To date, Murphy said, none of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops deployed on the continent has tested positive for coronavirus.
U.S. military operations have continued on the continent, although several training exercises have been canceled or scaled down to prevent a potential spread of COVID-19.