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Steve Griffin, KSL

Utah prepares alternative care site at Expo Center

By Amy Donaldson, KSL | Updated - Apr. 6, 2020 at 7:14 p.m. | Posted - Apr. 6, 2020 at 5:13 p.m.


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SANDY — State officials have turned an expo center into a hospital they hope never needs to be used.

“Two is one, and one is none,” said Joe Dougherty, public information officer for the Utah Division of Emergency Management. “That means you always need to have a backup plan.”

Utah’s backup plan is to convert the Mountain America Expo Center into a makeshift hospital — complete with its own pharmacy — that can care for up to 1,000 people, including infants and children.

“We hope to never use this facility,” Dougherty said of the building where about 260 beds have been set up with other services coming online in the next week. “This is an instance of the state of Utah being ready and proactive, just in case we need to bring medical patients here. This is not open to the general public right now.”

Utah officials contracted with Salt Lake County through May 14 to use the building where car shows and holiday festivals are usually held. Dougherty said the date could be extended, depending on what happens with the COVID-19 outbreak. The one thing state officials didn’t want to do was wait until they were desperate for hospital beds before coming up with a plan for how to care for those sick with illnesses and issues not related to coronavirus.

“An alternate care site is a location where we can bring patients who might need specific types of medical care, in the event that hospitals don’t have the capacity,” Dougherty said. “Currently all of the hospitals do have enough capacity to treat patients who need the treatment they’re going to get, but we want to make sure we are reserving hospital capacity for those who need it the very most.”

The state didn’t have to look very far for a site that would accommodate its needs.

“We picked here because this is a big, wonderful building, to be honest,” said Brett Cross, who will oversee the alternate care site. “Every one of these halls has its own air handling system, meaning that we could isolate a hall from each other, and that’s really important to us to reduce disease spread. This building also contains generators that can power this whole building in the event of, you know, we had an earthquake right in the middle of this, right?”

The cots being used were given to Utah by the federal government after emergency planners at the national level offered surplus equipment to state agencies. Employees of the Utah Department of Health and volunteers from Team Rubicon helped set up the facility. It will be staffed with medical professionals if it is needed.

“There are quite a number of medical professionals out in the community, there are people who have retired, a number who are currently idle because certain medical procedures are not being done, so we can make sure there are people we can draw from,” Dougherty said.

Medical supplies are pictured in the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy on Monday, April 6, 2020. The state contracted with Salt Lake County to use the expo center as a hospital overflow facility for people needing hospital care that’s not related to COVID-19 should the need arise during the pandemic. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

“This facility is meant to be flexible and scalable,” said Dougherty. “So really, it could be used to meet any type of medical need. ... The current plan calls for low acute care, which includes a broad range of medical treatments.”

The building includes a section for children and babies.

“Given that 32% of our population is (children), we put a pretty big emphasis on pediatric preparedness as well,” Cross said during a media tour of the facility Monday morning.

Dougherty said if they need to turn part or all of the expo facility into a care center for COVID-19 patients, they have the ability to do so.

“But that’s not part of the initial plan,” Dougherty said. “Currently patients who are suffering from coronavirus who need intensive care (treatment) are in intensive care units in hospitals.”

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