Forklifts zoomed across the concrete floor, collecting wooden pallets stacked with plastic-wrapped cardboard boxes, all of them stuffed with the vital protective equipment that will be shipped to medical and emergency workers across the state.
The operation takes place in a space too large to be called a room. It resembles a warehouse — a vast open space with concrete floors — until you see the concessions sign adhered to the wall and remember it is a convention center. The Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City, to be precise, a place meant to be filled with people, not medical equipment and vats of hand sanitizer.
But, with all large events canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the center is now, effectively, a warehouse, a hub for receiving and shipping the state’s stockpile of PPE. It’s a feat facilitated, in part, by the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Utah’s booze coordinators are no strangers to shipping supplies across the state, department spokesman Terry Wood said.
In fact, on Friday, the department’s deputy director was behind the wheel of one of those forklifts.
“We’re all just pitching in the best we can to help out,” said Cade Meier, donning a blue DABC polo and a black face mask.
The state on Thursday gave reporters a look at the operations inside its recently contracted Receiving, Staging and Shipping center. So far, approximately 4 million pieces of equipment — including 796,000 N95 respirators, 578,000 surgical masks, 1.9 million gloves and 281,000 face shields — have been sent out. At first, Wood said, many rode out in the trucks alongside spirits and beer and wine on the way to state-owned liquor stores.
The center gets new shipments of supplies regularly to make up for the PPE it sends out, said Michael Glenn, a Division of Purchasing contract analyst turned coronavirus supply group and distribution lead. On Friday, the center got shipments from five semitrucks.
As long as Utah doesn’t have an unexpected surge in cases, Glenn said, the state should be set on PPE for now.
Most of the equipment lining the convention center was either donated by regular folks and the federal government or bought by the state, Glenn said.
Employees from various state agencies, including the purchasing and emergency management divisions and Department of Health, staff the hub, along with the Utah National Guard and Utah Highway Patrol. Plus, the people not working for the state who want to volunteer.
On Friday, members of the national guard sorted through boxes of latex gloves. The DABC’s Information Technology director, Tim Cornia, manned a computer in a makeshift office on foldable tables at the center of the warehouse. And, of course, DABC deputy director Meier was on the forklift.
Working a supply chain of vital medical equipment isn’t any of their day jobs, but there is some overlap.
Meier learned how to drive a forklift when he started at the DABC and worked in its warehouse. And the DABC commonly sends out 14,000 to 17,000 cases of alcohol a day around Christmastime, Cornia said.
“So, we’re pretty good at it,” he added.
The state’s stockpile is one of the reasons Gov. Gary Hebert is optimistic that Utah can reopen without overburdening its hospitals, despite regularly seeing new COVID-19 cases and deaths.
On Friday, the state reported 195 new coronavirus cases — eight fewer than the largest one-day increase on April 2 — and three more people have died in Salt Lake County, which leads all counties in COVID-19 deaths with 42. Utah County is the next highest, with 11 deaths.
So far, 64 have died in the state, including Salt Lake County’s fatalities that weren’t released in the state’s daily COVID-19 update.
A dozen more people have been hospitalized since the day before, bringing the total to 476. Of those, 92 are currently hospitalized, according to new data the state began releasing Thursday that includes risk factors, exposures and other metrics.
The state counts 138,688 people who have been tested for the coronavirus, with a positive rate of 4.3%. On Friday, officials tallied 4,145 more tests than the day before. Some 2,769 of the state’s cases are considered “recovered" — meaning it’s been three weeks since the person was diagnosed and he or she hasn’t died.
The numbers look good as the state reopens, Herbert has said, but the pandemic — and Utah’s response to it — is far from over.
Looking around the bustling convention center on Friday, Wood shared an observation about the work being done, the work that will remain necessary for weeks and months, at least.
“When you look at each one of these boxes, when you’re lifting them, stacking them onto a pallet,” he said, “your mind starts to realize that what I’m holding could save a life.”
Correction: May 9, 2020, 4:49 p.m. • An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of supplies the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control ships out during the holidays.