Scattered throughout the East Meadow in Central Park, 14 white tents remind passersby that this is no ordinary time. This corner of Central Park, normally marked by joggers and picnicking families, is now a field hospital for victims of the novel coronavirus.
The resources arrived courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian humanitarian organization primarily known for its service abroad. With 694 volunteer doctors and other medical professionals, thousands of other volunteers, its own fleet of 16 large airplanes, and a donor-funded annual budget of about $650 million, Samaritan’s Purse often brings the first relief to disaster zones, or poor communities overseas. The organization provided a field hospital during the coronavirus surge in Italy, then offered help to another hotspot for the epidemic: New York City.
Speaking to reporters from the Central Park camp via webinar, Samaritan’s Purse vice president of programs and government relations Ken Isaacs explains that the unit boasts 10 intensive-care beds with ventilators, and more than 70 medical professionals plus 20 support staff. The operation will cost about $1.5 million per month to run. He says he never dreamed his group would be setting up one of their mobile hospitals in Manhattan. Yet several days after opening, 53 patients sent from nearby Mount Sinai Hospital were already occupying the 68 available beds.
The group moved fast, working closely with local and state government, FEMA, Con Edison, Central Park’s managers, and Mt. Sinai Hospital. Set-up began on March 28, and the first patients arrived April 1. Disaster-response director Brock Kreitzburg says citizens of New York City were just as quick to offer support. Volunteers from city churches pitched in, and neighbors watching from nearby apartments soon arrived to help erect tents. In the evenings, residents gathered by the medical unit to cheer and clap—“with a good distance.” Isaacs says this show of support has brought him to tears.
Other charities have established field hospitals in additional cities, like Team Rubicon’s facility in Santa Clara County, California. International Medical Corps plans to establish 20 field hospitals from coast to coast. One of their shelters will handle overflow from the Martin Luther King Community Hospital in Los Angeles, where there have been thousands of coronavirus cases.
Despite the pressing need for help, not everyone in New York was happy to see Samaritan’s Purse arrive. Mayor Bill de Blasio and others fretted that the organization’s stance on traditional marriage would cause it to discriminate against LGBT patients. In mid-April, Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) said critics like the Reclaim Pride Coalition, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and several Congressional Democrats have hounded his organization, diverting “time and energy and personnel away from serving COVID-19” patients with “tone deaf” criticisms of the religious principles of the charity. “If any of these groups had funded and erected their own emergency field hospitals to serve COVID-19 patients,” Graham concluded one Facebook post, “we would join what we believe would be most New Yorkers—and Americans—in applauding and praying for them, not harassing them.”
Isaacs scoffs at the idea that his organization would discriminate against patients. When it comes to treating persons in need “we don’t care” how they live, he says, suggesting that anyone who expects the organization to discriminate should come down to the field hospital to see what’s going on. Graham told the Wall Street Journal “we do not discriminate” against anyone who is sick “and we never have.”
“The health care system in New York is overwhelmed,” notes Kreitzburg. “There’s nobody else doing what we’re doing,” adds Isaacs. So the charity has no plans to leave Central Park any time soon. “If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll have to be here 60-90 days,” says Isaacs. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope we leave in two weeks. But I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”