NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. – The first thing you notice about the old Lowe’s on Davisville Road in Quonset is how clean it is for a building that has been used only intermittently since the home improvement store closed in 2011.
If this were a different moment, the vacant facility would be perfect for a recreation center. With 22-foot ceilings and 146,000 square feet of wide open space, a dozen indoor basketball courts could easily be built and there would still be room left over on the perfectly smooth gray concrete floor for a roller skating rink.
Then you see the beds, and you realize nothing fun is happening here. Because this is where the patients will go.
As Rhode Island prepares for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, this facility is one of three locations around the state that the National Guard and Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency are transforming into field hospitals that will be capable of housing hundreds of infected people at any given time.
The other alternative care sites will be located at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence and 100 Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston, a former Citizens Bank building.
By April 18, the North Kingstown building will be filled with 624 medical cots – beds that won’t be quite as comfortable as those found in any of the state’s traditional hospitals – lined up in rows of 12. Makeshift walls will be crafted along the heads of each bed and curtains will separate each patient.
The beds aren’t the only difference between the alternative care sites and traditional hospitals.
The facilities, which will house only people who have tested positive for the coronavirus, will be capable of providing limited services, like oxygen, IVs, and daily doses of medicine. If someone takes a turn for the worse and needs to go into intensive care, an ambulance will be on site 24 hours a day to transfer patients to a full-service hospital run by Lifespan or Care New England.
The field hospitals will start to be used once the traditional hospitals hit 80 percent capacity. And at this point, it’s not a matter of if they’ll be needed.
“From what we’ve seen from across the country, from the states surrounding us, we highly suspect we would use these places,” said Joe Reppucci, a consultant with the emergency management firm Russell Phillips & Associates. “But that’s all based on the models.”
The state Department of Health hasn’t yet made its coronavirus infection models public, but Governor Gina Raimondo said Monday a revised projection from researchers at the University of Washington, which shows that more than 900 Rhode Island residents could die from the disease by June, is in line with the state’s projections.
“If anyone tells you they know exactly when Rhode Island’s peak is, and what the number of hospitalizations will be at that peak, they’re not being honest with you,” Raimondo said.
The University of Washington model projects that Rhode Island will hit its peak number of coronavirus cases on April 27, and the state will need 1,649 hospital beds at that time. Without counting the field hospitals, the state has about 800 available beds. The three field hospitals will have the capacity to serve up to 1,500 patients at any given time.
As of Tuesday, the state had 1,299 confirmed cases of the virus, and 123 people were in the hospital. Thirty people had died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
So who’s paying for the facilities and how are they being staffed?
The state has entered into lease agreements to pay $100,000 a month for the site in North Kingstown and $300,000 a month for the Cranston facility. A deal with the convention center hasn’t been finalized, but the Providence Journal reported that the board that oversees the facility is seeking $660,000 a month.
The North Kingstown building is owned by the Quonset Development Corp., and the Cranston property is owned by the Carpionato Group.
As for workers, the North Kingstown facility will need 125 people – including doctors and nurses – to work 12-hour shifts each day, according to Brooke Lawrence, the executive officer for the nonprofit Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team. He said volunteers can sign up at riresponds.org.
“The best case is licensed health care providers, but there’s going to be lots of positions that need to be filled,” Lawrence said.
Brenna McCabe, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, said the bulk of costs will be covered by the federal government, which already has approved a disaster declaration for Rhode Island. The state is slated to receive at least $1.25 billion from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress last month.
Rhode Island is not the first state to begin setting up field hospitals. The Javits Center in New York City and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center are among destinations that have been transformed into medical facilities during the pandemic.
But Reppucci, the emergency management consultant, said the state is ahead of the curve when it comes to preparation. He said Raimondo assembled a team to scout locations and begin planning for a surge in hospital visits more than a month ago.
“The governor really took this seriously,” Repuucci said. “To get to where we are, there has been a lot of research and best practices in place.”