Utah leaders are exploring pop-up hospital sites as coronavirus cases top 400

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City Salt Palace Convention Center as seen on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

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Anticipating the potential for a strain on the state’s health care system amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Utah Department of Health said Thursday that it is considering establishing temporary hospital sites to ensure patients who contract the virus can receive the treatment they need.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn told reporters that she didn’t have an estimate for how many additional hospital beds might be needed but said that health officials are preparing in case the system becomes overburdened — a scenario that has already played out in other areas of the country.

“In other states and in other pandemics, places like convention centers, potentially hotels and those sorts of situations have been established as these kind of pop-up hospitals, so we’re assessing all those situations in Utah to ensure access to quality care is continued throughout this outbreak,” she said during a daily news briefing Thursday.

If the state’s infection curve “continues the way it is and we follow the trends of other states and other countries,” she continued, the need for those sorts of measures would be likely.

“That’s a serious thing,” she added. “So we are preparing for that, but we are also working really hard to stay below our health care capacity” by identifying and quarantining people with COVID-19 and encouraging Utahns to maintain social distancing measures to reduce the spread of the virus.

In an effort to free up resources for an impending surge in coronavirus cases, several Utah health care providers have also temporarily delayed all nonessential surgeries, doctor appointments and other medical services.

On Thursday, the state reported 402 confirmed coronavirus cases — up 56 from Wednesday — and no new deaths. And Utah could continue to see increases for the foreseeable future, Dunn said.

“We are doing our best to try to shorten that as much as possible,” she said, “but we are preparing for several months.”

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The number of coronavirus cases has risen 16% in each of the past three days. That’s less than in some earlier days of the outbreak, but Dunn said not to put too much stock in that trend. COVID-19 can incubate for up to 14 days before a patient develops symptoms.

“We look two weeks out to see if the numbers hold steady,” Dunn said.

The Transportation Security Administration, meanwhile, said Thursday that one of its screening officers who worked at Salt Lake City International Airport has tested positive for COVID-19.

TSA said the last shift that officer worked was Tuesday, between 4 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in Terminal 1. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention recommends people exposed to the virus but showing no symptoms quarantine for 14 days after the last potential exposure.

As health care professionals prepare for a possible overload in patients, two government-owned sites in Salt Lake County have been identified as potential pop-up hospitals: the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy and the Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City, confirmed Chloe Morroni, a spokeswoman in the county mayor’s office. The latter site is already being used for coronavirus-related needs, serving now as a drop-off place for personal protective equipment donations like masks, gloves and gowns.

Morroni noted that the state hasn’t yet contacted the county — which owns both of those facilities and closed them down earlier this month to slow the spread of the coronavirus — about using those sites.

But “nothing is off the table," she added. “If something was needed [in] the facilities we have available, we would work to make accommodations."

As part of its response to the coronavirus, the county has already identified seven other facilities it owns that are not currently in use and could be repurposed for COVID-19-related needs, including for things like medical supply storage and blood donations. Those sites have the capacity to hold up to 250 people in all.

“We have not yet decided when to move forward with activating these facilities or for what purpose, but it is likely that they will be used as quarantine facilities for people who can’t quarantine at home,” Morroni told The Salt Lake Tribune in an email last week.

As of Thursday morning, the county was housing five people experiencing homelessness at one of two locations set up for that purpose, according to Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp. About 28 people who have completed their quarantine or isolation period have already passed through, he said.

County officials have repeatedly declined to disclose the locations of the government centers they are currently using or considering using in response to the coronavirus.

It’s not just Salt Lake County that’s considering sites for pop-up hospitals. David Sundwall, the medical director of Rocky Mountain Care, a hospice and skilled-nursing provider, said his organization has had discussions with University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare about converting an old nursing home in Heber City into a facility for coronavirus cases.

Sundwall, a former director of the Utah Department of Health, said there is a meeting Monday to discuss retrofitting the 48-bed facility that was recently closed when a new nursing home was built. The old nursing home will need ventilators, some negative pressure rooms for the sickest patients and barriers to reduce the spreading of germs but could be ready in weeks, he said.

“It’s an example," Sundwall said, “of how we’re scrambling to anticipate an overfill of hospitals.”

Tom Hudachko, a spokesman with the Utah Health Department, wrote in an email Wednesday that the conversations about “alternative care hospitals” are ongoing at the state level.

“But if we get to that point, the preference would be to utilize existing fixed sites like warehouses or similar,” he said, rather than setting up at a tented facility like the Utah State Fairpark. There was some discussion, he added, about creating a mobile specimen collection site there.

Alison Smith, the incoming president of the Utah Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said it’s not ideal to treat coronavirus patients in makeshift hospitals and that her preference would be to use real ones.

But, she acknowledged, such improvisation may become necessary.

“Desperate times," she said, “call for desperate measures.”

— Tribune reporters Erin Alberty and Lee Davidson contributed to this story