DENVER -- As several Colorado cities and towns look to cost-cutting measures to offset the devastating impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the state of Colorado continues to shell out millions in tax dollars for a field hospital that has never been used.
Hotels, restaurants and other businesses downtown are struggling to survive while the Colorado Convention Center seems to be buffered from the chaos and gloomy economic outlook.
“It’s what I call the state’s insurance policy for our health care system,” said Mike Willis, director of the Colorado Emergency Operations Center.
Willis says the 250 empty beds inside the Colorado Convention Center are the equivalent of having home, auto or health care insurance.
“You have it and hope you never need it,” Willis said.
When the coronavirus crisis started last spring, cases in Colorado did spike.
At that time, the state started building an overflow care center in the Colorado Convention Center. The care center was constructed in the event that hospital beds would reach capacity and COVID-19 patients needed somewhere else to recover.
That never happened, cases declined and the beds sat empty.
“I feel it’s a waste of money,” said one Denver resident. “It’s never been used to this day.”
It’s a back-up plan with a huge price tag.
The cost to keep the beds available at the Colorado Convention Center under the current lease is $60,000 a day. That’s roughly $1.8 million a month for empty beds.
“You’re quite right,” Willis said. “We have to be good stewards of the taxpayer money, so there’s a balancing act.”
As you might imagine, public opinion is mixed about how much money is being spent on a field hospital that’s never been used.
“I think that they need to leave it open because there’s too many people still not wearing masks,” said one Denver resident.
“I say we save money. Why spend the money on leasing the space if it’s never been utilized?” said another.
“Everything says there’s probably going to be a surge this winter,” said Steve Smith, who lives downtown. “Indoor, flu – everything like that. Seems to me that a problem foreseen is a problem avoided.
At UCHealth, director of infection prevention Dr. Michelle Barron explains this winter could be unpredictable.
“There is the risk that we have a number of flu hospitalizations and then COVID-19 surges and then our hospital capacity will be diminished,” Barron said.
She says it’s in our nature to be prepared for the worst in Colorado.
“You have stuff in the back of your car,” Barron said. “You have a blanket, maybe batteries and a flashlight. Why? What are the chances you’re going to get caught in a snowstorm? Maybe zero, but what about that one time?”
Over at the Medical Center of Aurora, chief medical officer Dr. Philip Stahel does not see a scenario where they would need the convention center.
“We will not be surprised by this virus a second time,” Stahel said.
He says COVID-19 cases at Health One’s seven metro-Denver hospitals are declining.
“Just two weeks ago, for the very first time in six months, we had zero COVID patients,” Stahel said.
It’s now fluctuating between five and ten patients, but Stahel says treatment has even lessened the severity of COVID-19.
“We have healed many patients with one single unit of convalescent plasma and they ended up leaving the hospital when they were on the verge of death,” he said. “Patients are less sick than they used to be.”
Neighboring businesses like the Hotel Teatro and others say the convention center’s continued closure is crushing business.
They believe the state should loosen COVID-19 restrictions, so conventions can return in some form or fashion, even if mask orders and social distancing guidelines are still in place.
Back at the EOC, Willis points out FEMA is footing the bill for about 75% of the convention center costs.
“That helps a lot,” he said.
His belief is, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“Being prepared isn’t free,” Willis said. “If we were to ever need it, it would have been worth every penny. If you have to tear them out and put them back in it’s going to cost even more.”
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