Health care professionals prepare to screen people for the coronavirus at a testing site erected by the Maryland National Guard in a parking lot at FedEx Field March 30, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, a powerful industry group representing some of the state’s biggest health care systems, is asking the federal government to open up military and veterans’ hospitals across the commonwealth in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a  letter Monday to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D), VHHA President Sean Connaughton asked the senator to “urge the secretary of defense and secretary of veterans affairs” to open seven facilities for “patient testing, admission, and care of COVID-19 patients.”

Those facilities include Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, and Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond.

“Virginia military bases have on-site acute care hospitals and clinics in many of the communities where the projected impact of COVID-19 is expected to intensify,” Connaughton wrote. “The same is also true for the acute care hospitals and clinics operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Given that both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have postponed or cancelled all non-emergency elective procedures and many clinical operations, we are aware that they currently have significant capacity in these facilities,” he continued.

The push for capacity comes amid continuing uncertainty over the ability of Virginia’s hospitals to handle a significant increase in coronavirus patients. As of Tuesday, the commonwealth has 1,250 known cases with 165 hospitalizations and 27 deaths.

During weekly press briefings, Virginia Secretary of Health Dr. Daniel Carey has estimated that the state has 2,000 ICU beds, each with an accompanying ventilator. In severe cases, respiratory equipment is often used to help patients whose lungs have been damaged by the disease.

Officials have ordered an additional 350 ventilators from the National Strategic Stockpile, Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, said last week. The state’s six regional health care coalitions have an additional 400 ventilators “that can be deployed to hospitals if necessary,” wrote Julian Walker, the vice president of communications for VHHA, in a March 18 email. 

In total, the state has more than 18,500 licensed hospital beds. The Virginia Department of Health is also prepared to relax its certificate of public need regulations, allowing hospitals to quickly add capacity without state approval.

But health officials have given no indication of exactly how many hospital beds, ventilators and ICU beds may be required to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases. Nor have they given an estimate on when the disease is expected to peak in Virginia.

“Social distancing and making sure we keep each other safe is really where that focus needs to be,” Carey said Friday in response to a question on when the state expected to see its highest number of cases. “The most important thing we can do is what the governor already mentioned — making sure we’re doing everything we can to slow the spread of disease.”  

Despite the continued uncertainty, Northam and his administration have become increasingly candid about how the disease is already straining the state’s medical infrastructure — from limited testing supplies to shortages of personal protective equipment. Last week, the governor mandated that hospitals postpone all elective surgeries and procedures to preserve critical bed space.

Those non-urgent operations — including joint replacements and colonoscopies — are among the biggest revenue drivers for hospitals. Some facilities had already postponed the procedures, but Northam said his mandate was aimed at those that had declined to do so voluntarily.

The state also asked the Army Corps of Engineers last week to begin looking for “alternate care sites” — including dorms, hotels, and arenas — to treat COVID-19 patients. Some facilities, including Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg and VCU Medical Center in Richmond, have already begun preparing overflow sites.

In his letter to Warner, Connaughton described military and veterans hospitals as “ the ultimate” alternate care facilities, “given their geographic location and availability as existing medical facilities already equipped, staffed and supplied to provide admission and care of COVID-19 patients.

“We estimate the total number of surge beds that could be made available by utilizing these resources to be in excess of 2,000 beds,” he continued. 

VHHA is one of the organizations tasked with assessing the state’s available medical infrastructure and surge capacity. In collaboration with VDH, it runs the Virginia Healthcare Emergency Management Program, a coalition tasked with responding to public health emergencies.