COVID-19 resurgence puts Tulare Hospital District tower talks on hold

As Tulare County and Adventist Health grapple with an unvaccinated COVID-19 resurgence, progress slows on Tulare Local Healthcare District tower

TULARE – The Tulare Local Healthcare District has been trudging through setbacks for over 15 years trying to get the seemingly never-ending tower project done, pledged to bring more healthcare to a community in need. Benny Benzeevi awaits trial for the fraud scheme that bankrupted the district and Adventist Health has thrown the district a financial lifeline, but now they face another setback—this time from the very residents they are trying to serve.

Tulare County residents have shown to be reluctant and resistant to adhere to medical advice to get vaccinated and end the pandemic’s siege on normalcy, as only 39.1% of Tulare County residents are vaccinated, which has inundated local hospitals with an all-too-familiar influx of COVID-19 patients.

As a result, a late-August public forum to promote transparency, public input, educate and gauge public opinion and perception of the tower project was canceled—a meeting said by a board member to set the tone for finishing the tower. Tulare Local Healthcare District CEO Sandra Ormonde said the decision came in part from being mindful of the load on Adventist Health’s forum representatives, who are currently mired in a wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“That’s something we’re mindful of, the strain on those operating hospitals right now,” Ormonde said.

Ormonde said the Tulare Local Healthcare District is also keeping an eye on the gubernatorial recall election results and the decisions or mandates concerning COVID-19 that may or may not follow. She said the district is looking into the possibility of a virtual public forum, but want to make sure the Adventist Health personnel could support that given they’re currently neck-deep in COVID-19 patients.

“We’re waiting to see if there are any mandates that would preclude an in-person event, as well as watching the [COVID-19 case] numbers to make sure we don’t do something in-person until it’s safe, until everyone is comfortable with that,” Ormonde said. “We’re just kind of waiting.”

The Sept. 14 Tower Construction Committee meeting was also canceled, which normally meets on the second Tuesday of every month. The committee serves as an advisory committee to the board, and the current COVID-19 surge has driven cancellations of other meetings liaisons of the committee needed to attend to provide information to the board.

“The committee just advises, so they do research,” Ormonde said. “In order to make a recommendation to the board, and as we get this all geared, there’s a lot of information to look at…there’s still work going on, of course, with the committee members, them working with staff doing some other things, but it was not much to provide updates.”

Slowed, but not stopped

While the bigger picture may be on hold, work has not stopped for the Tulare Local Healthcare District. Importer of record (IOR) and project manager Gary Sutherland is retiring at the end of September, and both an interim IOR and an interim project manager have been brought on board as of Sept. 1 to see that work does not stop, completing smaller projects to keep the building permits active on the tower. The district is currently seeking to fill the role of a permanent project manager and IOR, as well as architectural, construction and inspection services.

Among the active projects is the construction of medical offices at the corner of Gem Street and Merritt Avenue, where Ormonde said demolition of the current structure is slated for the next week or two. The additional medical space is for physicians who want to practice near the hospital to help meet the growing need for physicians and additional medical services.

“Each step we take to complete the tower project and now add additional medical office space furthers our efforts to meet the needs of our community,” said Kevin Northcraft, president of the Tulare Local Healthcare District Board. “The health and well-being of the district’s residents will always be our priority.”

The additional medical office space will be owned by the Tulare Local Hospital District. The total development cost is estimated at $1.2 million.

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