Derrick Foster was driving to work when he received a flight itinerary via email.
Foster, 38, a 2000 graduate of Anniston High School and 2007 graduate of Jacksonville State University, works as director of environmental services in a Gainesville, Fla., hospital, but he’s also a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, a 20-year veteran with two deployments to Iraq to his credit — once as an enlisted soldier and again as an officer. The message arrived on March 30, just a few weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic began, still a slow trickle before the deluge that later flooded the United States. University of Florida Health Shands, the hospital where he works, had been preparing its response for the virus just a week before.
Foster stopped his car and called his unit for more information — maybe it was training, or some other obligation he hadn’t foreseen.
Instead, he learned he was one of 85 Reserves members being mobilized to help hospitals push back against the pandemic in New Jersey, a mission that came without an expiration date.
“I told my general manager at work, left early that day and came home, got my bags packed, and the next day, my family drove me to the airport,” Foster said Monday, after returning home Saturday night, a little over seven weeks since he left his Florida home.
His role was to act as an executive officer in one of the first four UAMTFs — urban augmentation medical task forces — deployed to the state. The task forces comprised doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and logistics personnel, among others. Foster’s group was originally meant to take pressure off the staff of University Hospital Newark by creating a field medical station — converting a space like an event center into an improvised hospital — where non-COVID patients could be treated while hospital staff managed coronavirus cases.
Only a week into that work, the task force received orders to move into the hospital and help directly, Foster said, as most of the hospital was turning into a COVID-positive intensive care unit.
“There was a high volume of patients admitted, and within a week they were passing,” Foster recalled. “The staff was tired, depleted; they needed support.”
New Jersey has had 155,092 confirmed cases as of Monday afternoon, according to covid.nj.gov, the state’s online repository of pandemic information. Newark is the state’s most populous city, with nearly 300,000 people. Essex County, where the city and hospital are located, has had 17,202 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 1,595 deaths, as of Monday. For comparison, Alabama in total has had 14,730 confirmed cases, and 592 deaths, as of Memorial Day, according to the state Department of Public Health’s online resources.
“It’s hard to describe, but you could see the need; you could see it on the faces of the community, of the staff, of the patients, that they needed help,” Foster said.
The task force stepped in to take care of work like infection screenings, helping patients with assisted breathing equipment and “proning” — moving patients into various positions throughout the day to relieve pressure on certain parts of their lungs, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Reserves members stayed in hotels during that time, spread out in areas near the hospital. Stay-at-home rules quickly came into effect, so sightseeing wasn’t an option, though most free time was spent getting shut-eye, anyway. There were routine meetings for discussions about mental health and fatigue, and on the weekends, food and board games as much as possible.
“We made sure we created a ‘home’ feeling to try and keep soldiers engaged,” Foster said, “and we were listening to their recommendations for MWR — that’s morale, welfare and recreation.”
The arrival of new cases started to slow down during the last week, Foster said, with staff levels increasing, patient admissions declining, and COVID-positive patients leaving the hospital healthy.
“The climate of the hospital changed for the better,” he said. “People were in better moods.”
The last few days were bittersweet, Foster said.
“You got into that fight, and this is what you were trained to do, but you’ve become a part of the team at University Hospital and you’re almost like co-workers at the time we were getting ready to leave,” he recalled. “They wake you up and say ‘hey, it’s time to go,’ and you snap back into reality. We’ve done our job, it’s time to go.”
Foster’s next two weeks will be spent in a self-quarantine imposed by the Department of Defense, employing the maxim of “better safe than sorry.” Afterward, he’s free to get back to work. Until then, though, he’s with his wife, Erin, his 11- and 6-year-old sons Tres and Ryan, and his 2-year-old daughter, Eryss.
Having seen the virus and its effects firsthand, Foster said he encourages people to continue to stay home if possible, and be safe.
“One thing this mobilization has taught me if that you can look at the TV and decide whether or not it’s safe to go outside, but until you’ve actually seen what COVID can do to you or what the pandemic is actually like, you’re better off listening to your elected leaders,” he said.