Cranston native helps lead one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 field hospitals


(WPRI) ─ In late March, as coronavirus cases continued to climb in New York, the Javits Convention Center was transformed into New York City’s first field hospital.

As plans were made to use the Manhattan facility for hospital overflow, a call was placed to Colonel Kimberlee Aiello – commander of the 44th Military Brigade based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Rhode Island native was about to find out her help was needed up north. 

“Within a day, I was here in New York City, and I haven’t left since,” Aiello said. 

Six weeks later, Aiello continues to work closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the state of New York in overseeing operations at what’s currently known as the Javits New York Medical Station (JNYMS). The 2,500-bed facility is being used to treat COVID-19 patients, who are beginning to recover from the virus. 

“If someone comes into the emergency room, one of four of them are going to end up being a vented patient. Those are the kind of patients we need and want to stay in our city hospitals,” Aiello explained. “However, as they start coming across and going through the virus, at about 14-17 days… as they come off the ventilator, those are the patients we want to see in [Javits].”

Command Sgt. Maj. Fergus Joseph (left) and Col. Kimberlee Aiello (center), the command sergeant major and commander of the 44th Medical Brigade, sit with Col. Brandon Pretlow (right), the commander of the 531st Hospital Center, during the mid-exercise after action review in the exercise control tent at Sierra Army Depot, California, during the United States Forces Command Medical Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise, Oct. 30, 2019. The purpose of the AAR was to discuss recent events and address concerns in order to maintain operational efficiency for the remainder of the exercise.

Aiello said at JNYMS, they are able to care for patients who don’t require treatment at a local hospital, which then allows the hospital to focus on their intensive care patients.

“If you look here in New York City, there are approximately 1,500 – 1,800 ICUs. They now, here in New York City, have almost 4,000 ICUs because we were able to decant some of the non-urgent patients from their hospitals into our facility,” Aiello explained.

A Cranston native, Aiello graduated from Cranston East High School and attended college in Boston, where she met her husband.

“I miss everyone in Rhode Island. I feel honored to be from Rhode Island, and I do hope I represent Rhode Island well,” Aiello said.

In 1992, she joined the U.S. Army. She was eventually deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Now, Aiello has found herself on the frontlines of a much different battle. 

“Having just been here at Thanksgiving, clearly a different New York City than anything I have ever seen or known. It looked like a ghost town,” Aiello said about arriving in NYC in mid-March. 

But inside the city’s hospitals, Aiello said it was chaos.

“Patients that are waiting for care. Not enough providers and nursing staff to take care of just the sheer amount of patients,” she said. “To see that death across city hospitals is absolutely unimaginable.”

Since then, Aiello said there has been improvement in the city. For example, she said the Javits has seen over 1,080 patients in the facility to date. Right now, they are caring for less than 150 people. 

“That’s good news because it really goes to show that, although it’s still a serious situation here in New York City with the virus, you’re starting to see all hospitals across New York City and across New York are decreasing,” she said.

Despite the improvement, Aiello said it is imperative everyone continues to stay home and practice social distancing.

“It’s a disease you can’t see, so it’s hard to fight,” Aiello said. “I just recommend any guidelines released by the governor or mayor…definitely adhere to them.”

Aiello said there are more than 2,700 military medical personnel assisting in the Northeast right now, spanning from Boston to Pennsylvania.

“We’re busy. However, we’re just really proud to serve our country,” Aiello said. “It comes with purpose, with intent.”

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