SAN FRANCISCO -- It was supposed to be just a three-day holiday gig on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Now David Pecora of Bemidji finds himself on the front lines of a medical war.

Pecora, 57, is an emergency medicine physician assistant from Bemidji. He has been deployed by the nation’s Health and Human Services Department to a coronavirus facility outside San Francisco General Hospital. He's on a team that began treating COVID-19 positive patients in what is called a stepdown unit last week, before moving into the main hospital’s intensive care unit this week.

“I’ve never been in the military before,” Pecora said in a recent phone interview. “But that’s exactly how I feel. It’s definitely scary, though, just because of the unknown.”

Back home, Pecora works as an independent physician assistant, filling in as needed in emergency rooms around the state. Originally from Pennsylvania, he moved to the Bemidji area in 2008 to work at the Cass Lake Indian Health Service emergency care facility. He later worked for Sanford Health in Bagley before becoming an independent physician assistant.

Last summer, a friend invited Pecora to work in a medical tent during Fourth of July festivities on the National Mall. Extra facilities were being set up because President Trump was planning to attend. The Health and Human Services Department was coordinating the medical effort.

Pecora went to Washington, and at the end of the celebration, he was asked to sign an agreement with HHS for the next two years.

“I signed it honestly not thinking that I would ever be called up,” Pecora said. “I know there’s hurricanes and tornadoes, but those aren’t federal government, nationwide responses. So I thought I would never hear from them again.”

But in late March he received an email from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, informing him that he would be deployed. He had about 24 hours to pack for the assignment.

“It was not a, ‘Hey, can you please come help us?’ It was an order,” Pecora said.

Initially he was assigned to a hospital in Connecticut, but the governor there had not signed on for federal medical assistance. Pecora was sent to San Francisco instead.

There are 12 patient beds in his unit. A doctor oversees all 12. Pecora and one other physician assistant are each assigned to six patients. The team also includes 10 critical care nurses. Last week the patients ranged in age from 22 to 86.

“All this COVID-19 stuff is brand new,” Pecora said. “So there’s not like a textbook we can go to, and you can’t Google it. It’s all pretty much trying to do the best you can with the experience you’ve had with other diseases like SARS.”

Pecora said he was initially worried about his own safety.

“That was one of the concerns that I had,” he said. “Just because of what I’ve seen on TV and read about shortages (of personal protective equipment). But so far we’ve not been deficient of anything. Everything we’ve needed for personal protection has been there. But we’re having to reuse the N95 masks, which normally that’s not how it’s done. It’s usually a one-time thing. But because everybody’s fearful of running out I have to use mine over and over again throughout the shift, and then consider using it again the next day if it’s not too soiled.”

Pecora, who also is a paramedic working four to five around-the-clock shifts a month with Bemidji Ambulance Service, said the experience in San Francisco has been unlike anything he has ever been a part of.

“Usually these kinds of things are experienced in a third-world country,” he said. "But now we’re experiencing it.”