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How a Lego-like shipping container is bringing the future of mobile medicine to Harris County

The future of mobile medicine is coming to Harris County, focused initially on community-based COVID-19 testing but available for any emergency response or disease care.

The so-called SmartPods, portable aluminum units developed by Baylor College of Medicine for the Ebola outbreak in Africa and envisioned by NASA for the Mars habitat, will be deployed in the United States for the first time in east Harris County’s Precinct 2. The initiative is the brainchild of Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who sees the units as a way to increase health care access and keep people out of hospitals.

“This is the 21st century MASH unit being made available here,” said Garcia. “Tents were the first phase. This is the second phase.”

The first of the SmartPods opened Tuesday at Northeast Community Center in Aldine. Two more will follow, one at East Harris Activity Center in Pasadena and one at Flukinger Community Center in Channelview. Dates for their openings have not yet been set.

Each SmartPod is a modular four-room medical unit — self-contained, fully powered but capable of going off grid, impervious to outside weather conditions — inside a recycled shipping container that inventor Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy says is “almost like Ikea.” Anandasabathy, an internal medicine professor and the director of Baylor Global Initiatives, touts how the pods can be linked like Legos, how they fold up in minutes. Though they don’t travel themselves, they can be easily picked up and transported to areas of need, typically by truck but also by ship or helicopter, for instance.

The pods cost less than 5 percent of a brick-and-mortar medical unit, said Anandasabapathy. Precinct 2 is spending a total of $2.9 million in county funding on the Aldine and Pasadena units, money that covers their design, construction, transport, medical equipment and medical services. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) is expected to reimburse the money.

It is unclear if other Harris County commissioners will purchase units for their precincts, but Anandasabapathy said future plans call for the installation of two more in Precinct 2 — one for women’s health, and one for mental health. The SmartPod in Channelview, on loan from Baylor, will focus on primary care.

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Baylor is getting requests for the pods from other entities around the nation and globe. For now, it is able to build the units on demand, but hopes to turn the manufacturing over to a spin-off company by the end of the year.

The pods in Aldine and Pasadena, focused on COVID-19, feature respiratory isolation rooms. The hermetically sealed, negative-pressure rooms decrease the risk of airborne transmission of disease and enable doctors to treat contagious, sick patients in a safe way. Such rooms are impossible in tents and rare even in U.S. clinics.

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Features of the SmartPod:

— 8 x 20 foot container that expands manually into a 400 square foot facility.

— Can withstand winds up to 116 miles per hour,