It's loud inside the large blue tent at El Centro Regional Medical Center. Cooled air is blasting through two giant vents to counter the summer heat. Nurses half yell instructions in English and Spanish through their N95 masks and face shields to be heard by patients and each other.
The tents fill half the parking lot at the hospital -- the most visible sign of the uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 in Imperial County in the far southeast of California, bordering Arizona and Mexico. The death rate here is the highest in the state.
Hospital CEO Adolphe Edward watches as people suspected of having coronavirus are assessed outside his 161-bed hospital, where he says nearly 90% of patients have tested positive for Covid.
Edward last saw these medical tents deployed in the Iraq War, during his 22-year service in the Air Force. He didn't imagine erecting them on US soil but turned to them as coronavirus forced him to burst beyond the walls of his hospital.
"We're not used to seeing tents outside of hospitals," says Edward. "When folks say it's a war zone, well, a war zone of what? A war zone of us trying to combat Covid-19."
Hot, exhausting work to save lives
The front line in the Covid war in Imperial County begins with the first responders.
At 11 a.m., as temperatures climbed to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, an emergency call sent El Centro Fire Department Captain Chad Whitlock to the front lawn of a home. Whitlock zipped up his bright yellow Tyvek suit, equipped with what looks like a scuba mask attached to an air pump. It's called a powered air purifying respirator, or PAPR, pushing clean filtered air into Whitlock's suit.
Whitlock approached a man, suspected of having Covid, passed out underneath a tree. He manages to revive him and an ambulance with a gurney arrives to take him away.
"Emotionally, mentally, it's starting to really wear down on a lot of us," says Whitlock, his hair wet and his clothes completely drenched through with his sweat as he peels off the Tyvek suit. "I wish people would really take Covid seriously for all the health care workers, firefighters, EMS crews, our hospital staff. We're inundated. Everybody's really tired. ... I've been here a long time with this department -- 29 plus years. This is the worst I've seen it."
Whitlock heads back to the fire station where he'll begin a two hour process of decontamination -- showering, putting on new clothes and wiping down all his gear. When he's done, he'll start the process all over again, putting the suit back on for the next medical distress call, which the fire department says this summer has been every 30 to 60 minutes in this town of 44,000 people.
The patient Whitlock revived is heading to El Centro Regional Medical Center.
"We feel like we're overwhelmed with so many patients," says El Centro Regional nurse Stephen Jaime. "They're just so sick."
Eleven of the 12 Covid patients in this wing of the ICU are on ventilators and the medics are doing what they can to keep