While Louisiana’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to surge, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has largely abandoned what was once thought to be a key part of the state’s response to the pandemic, a massive medical facility set up at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
After treating 416 patients over nearly 7 months, the facility last month entered what state officials call a “warm status,” where the medical facility is no longer operating but can be ramped back up within 72 hours. It discharged its final patients in late October, according to a census count of the facility.
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness is now auctioning off some of the tents on a government bidding site. Mike Steele, a spokesman for the agency, said the equipment was deemed surplus after the facility was downsized earlier this year.
According to documents provided by GOHSEP in response to a public records request, the state racked up $230 million in purchase orders for the facility–from beds to staffing to “mass fatality services”–but it wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday how much the state had paid out to date. Officials said no patients died at the convention center.
Under the new “warm status,” the state expects to pay about $1.7 million in November and December on the skeleton facility, according to the documents.
Dr. Joe Kanter, the state’s top coronavirus response official, said in an interview the equipment remains on site at the convention center, which has recently sought to gain back some of the traditional business it lost during the pandemic. Given the low numbers of patients at the facility–the patient count never reached above four during the month of October–Kanter said the state was comfortable winding it down.
Even now, as the number of hospitalized patients jumps in Louisiana, putting a strain on hospitals, LDH said it hopes to not reopen the center. That’s largely because what hospitals need most, health workers to staff intensive care units, isn’t eased by the “medical monitoring station” at the convention center.
“This is the experience in every other city that has put up these medical monitoring places, is you can really care for a specific type of patient but when you get any more complex it really exceeds the capability of that type of setting,” Kanter said. “It never really was going to add ICU capacity. It was going to be an outlet valve and it was for low-acuity in patients and nursing home residents.”
Officials hastily put together the convention center facility in April, as New Orleans stood at the center of an early national outbreak of the virus. It originally had the capacity to house 1,000 patients. The largest number of patients at the facility at one time was 108 on April 20, according to figures provided by the Health Department.
A little over a month later, in May, Edwards’ administration was crafting plans to wind down the facility but keep it open in case the virus surged again, which has happened twice since. Mostly, the facility has served nursing home residents who were transferred there as the virus roiled congregate settings. Since, nursing homes have gotten better at navigating the virus on their own, Kanter said.
“It served its role well and I’m glad we never got to 1,000 beds in there,” Kanter said.
In recent weeks, Louisiana has seen the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 soar, with little sign of abating. On Tuesday, the number ticked up again by 39, to 1,280. That was more than double the number hospitalized at the beginning of November, when officials had discharged the last patient from the convention center.
In response to that surge, Edwards ratcheted up some restrictions, taking the state back into a modified version of Phase 2 of reopening, in which most businesses can operate at 50% capacity. Most bars across the state are closed to indoor service.