Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
With hospitals slammed and a potential health crisis looming, the state of New Mexico’s multi-million-dollar investment in an alternate care overflow facility for COVID-19 patients is sitting locked and unused on Gibson Boulevard in Albuquerque.
On Wednesday, both the number of daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations broke records in New Mexico and medical leaders warned they may have to treat patients in MASH-style units.
But it’s still unclear when, or if, the space that once housed Lovelace Hospital will be used for coronavirus patients.
New Mexico Health Department officials didn’t respond to a Journal request for an interview, but a spokeswoman sent the Journal a written statement to say that the Gibson Medical Center at 5400 Gibson Blvd. SE remains an option for addressing overcrowding at hospitals but the state has provided no specific timeline or details.
As the highly contagious virus took hold last spring, state health officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered a quick $3.6 million renovation of the now-closed hospital. State health officials promised the site would be “operational” by April 27 for non-acute patients recovering from COVID-19.
The state signed a one-year lease to use 360,000 square feet of the privately-owned Gibson Medical Center for $8.6 million a year. It is one of 38 “alternate care sites” set up by the Army Corps of Engineers around the country.
So far the state hasn’t needed to use the backup medical facility, but has paid more than $7 million to lease the space and purchase supplies just in case.
General hospital bed space is scarce statewide, but opening the 200-bed COVID-19 backup unit now will be difficult because of a shortage of medical staff in New Mexico and surrounding states, state health officials say.
When the Gibson facility was being planned last spring, “staffing was initially to be the New Mexico National Guard followed by supportive staff from University of New Mexico Medical Center who would be site lead for the facility,” said state Human Services Department spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter in an email to the Journal on Tuesday.
Now, the state “is currently considering a federal request” for Department of Defense military personnel to staff the Gibson site for the current medical surge, McGinnis Porter wrote. State officials have attributed the staffing shortage to “burnout” and medical workers contracting the disease.
With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations shattering state records, local hospital officials have said New Mexico would exceed its contingency standard this month, and exceed crisis capacity in early December given the current trend.
On Wednesday, the state reported 481 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Dr. David Scrase, a medical adviser to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Human Services Cabinet secretary, said during a public update last week that hospitals around the state were reporting 92% of their general hospital beds were full.
“We expect to run out of general hospital beds in a matter of days, not weeks,” Scrase said.
Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, in late October said one possible strategy would be to set up tents to accommodate patients, with units similar to mobile army surgical hospitals.
Asked by reporters about the Gibson facility, state health officials in recent weeks have said the old Lovelace hospital could be used for “sheltering” people, such as those who might have tested positive for COVID-19 or homeless people with the virus, who have nowhere else to go. Other options mentioned in recent months would be to use the renovated space for behavioral health needs.
But McGinnis Porter said in her email to the Journal: “The Gibson Medical Center remains a viable option to address hospital capacity issues during this current increase in COVID positive cases.”
The facility was created “to address possible hospital overflow of COVID-19 patients” who could not “self care or who needed to be isolated in a step-down care facility,” she wrote.
Non-acute COVID-19 patients would be transferred from hospitals, thus freeing up hospital bed space for more serious cases.
The Gibson site, which housed the old Lovelace Hospital until it closed in 2007, was selected by the Army Corps of Engineers based on an assessment the agency performed. DOH received operational responsibility for the facility, which underwent more than $337,000 of updates to house COVID patients. The retrofit included installation of window units to create negative pressure so that air in patient areas is removed through the filtration system,
The Department of Health took the lead working with the state General Services Department to structure a lease for the facility, which is located east of office space used by several behavioral health firms, and the state’s Turquoise Lodge, a rehabilitation center.
Doors to the COVID-19 facility were locked on Wednesday, and a private security guard patrolling the area told the Journal, “All my guys are wondering when it (the surge) is going to hit (the new facility).”
McGinnis Porter stated that the Department of Health is using the purchase order process to pay invoices for leasing the facility with “executive order” and federal CARES Act funding.
“The state has requested (federal) reimbursement for allowable expenditures for this lease,” she added.
Shelter for homeless
The Gibson Medical Center is also being considered by the city of Albuquerque as a 24/7 gateway shelter for the homeless. Back in February, the city estimated that purchasing the space would cost $7.4 million. But property manager Nadine Martinez Daskalos told the Journal on Wednesday that estimate is incorrect, and an appraisal of the property came in at $18 million.
Lisa Huval, deputy director of the city of Albuquerque’s Housing and Homelessness, said earlier this week the city was still doing an assessment of the Gibson Medical Center location while continuing conversations with the state about its use as a shelter.
A number of states that have built alternate care sites have not yet admitted any COVID patients to them – several citing staff shortages as the reason.
The state of Alaska, which set up a hospital overflow site at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, is also experiencing a surge of hospitalizations, but has placed the facility in “warm” status, with two days notice needed before activation occurs.
“We have all these alternate care sites in theory, and they’re ready to go. But the question is: will we have staffing,” said Jaren Kosin, director of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, in a story published by Alaska Public Media. Others have served fewer patients than the facilities’ capacity.
The Army Corps of Engineers built two other “alternate care” sites in Gallup and Chinle, Arizona, and treated COVID-19 patients during an earlier surge in cases in the northwest part of New Mexico.