County adds beds for COVID-19 cases

State converts 246 beds at Porterville Developmental Center for anticipated surge in coronavirus patients

The Sun-Gazette

PORTERVILLE– Construction began last week to retrofit a portion of the Porterville Developmental Center as an alternate care site for local hospitals that may be overwhelmed by a surge in patients due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the planning, design and construction of the project to provide an additional 246 beds to treat patients infected with the coronavirus as part of its mission from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The center would serve as overflow beds for Sierra View Medical Center if the Porterville hospital were to exceed its capacity for COVID-19 patients.

The corps announced on April 7 that it had awarded the construction contract to Herman Construction Group, Inc. of Escondido, Calif. Construction is expected to be completed in the next week. Once construction is complete, the site will be returned to the state to fulfill staffing and logistical requirements before patients can be admitted.

“The corps is doing everything within our power to expedite construction of additional bed space in Tulare County for COVID-19 infected patients and to assist the state in developing opportunities for future locations throughout California,” said Col. Eric McFadden, USACE operations coordinator to CalOES and FEMA Region 9. “Our goal is to provide safe, clean, and functional facilities where we would want to have our own loved ones cared for.”

The 246-beds in Porterville are part of a larger plan to secure more than 4,600 beds at alternate care sites for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 6. The state has aggressively planned for a surge in hospitalizations in the coming weeks and aims to add 50,000 beds to our existing hospital capacity of nearly 75,000 beds. At least 60 percent of those additional beds, or 30,000, will come from within existing hospitals, and the state will secure the remaining beds, up to 20,000. The alternate care facilities will provide care for less sick patients, thus allowing hospitals to focus their resources on those with the most acute needs.

“California has been working closely with hospitals to aggressively expand our state’s ability to treat the coming surge in COVID-19 patients,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “As a result, California is adding tens of thousands more hospital beds, sourcing and distributing lifesaving medical supplies and ventilators, and significantly expanding our health care workforce. This is an all hands on deck effort, and I am extremely grateful to all of our partners in the medical community, the private sector and across government for helping us get this far. All of these efforts will only pay off if we continue to slow the spread of the virus. Staying home will save lives.”

In addition to the Porterville Developmental Center, the state’s other alternate care sites to date include:

  • The former Sleep Train Arena, now known as Natomas Arena, in Sacramento has a maximum capacity of 400 beds;
  • Eight federal medical stations operating or being set up across the state, each with a maximum of 250 beds;
  • Fairview Developmental Center, with a maximum capacity of 520 beds;
  • San Carlos Hotel, with a maximum capacity of 120 beds; and
  • CPMC – Pacific Campus, with a maximum capacity of 291 beds.

Alternate care sites will be staffed using a number of resources, including the newly established California Health Corps. The Health Corps is made up of health care providers, behavioral health professionals, and health care administrators who sign up to work at alternate care sites. They will add to the existing state health care workforce with underutilized and underemployed professionals, and with qualified student, retiree, and out-of-state health care providers.

In addition, the state has leased two hospitals and received a naval medical ship from the federal government as surge facilities:

  • Seton Medical Center in Daly City, which has a maximum capacity of 220 beds;
  • St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, which has a maximum capacity of 266 beds; and
  • USNS Mercy, which has an easily-accessible maximum capacity of up to 550 beds. (Note: USNS Mercy has a capacity of 1,000 bunk beds).

To date, the Army Corps of Engineers has conducted site assessments for 26 state-identified facilities as possible locations to increase hospital space throughout California, including the Porterville location. Site assessments inform the state whether or not a facility can support the infrastructure needed for an alternate care facility.

USACE currently has more than 100 personnel supporting the State of California’s COVID-19 response, and more than 15,000 assisting states and territories nationwide. During emergencies, USACE is the lead federal agency to FEMA for public works and engineering support.

The Porterville Developmental Center, 26501 Avenue 140 on the east end of Porterville, is a 670-acre facility that provided health, dental, behavioral, specialty equipment, psychiatric and other services for developmentally disabled clients.

Most of the 1,226-bed facility is already empty and was slated to close next year as part of a plan to scale back institution living for clients and help them transition back into their community. The Intermediate Care Facilities, serving about 122 clients at one time, at the center is scheduled to close in July 2021 and the General Treatment Area, serving about 49 clients at one time, in December 2021. The Security Treatment Program, which serves about 190 clients in Porterville, will remain open.

The facility opened as the Porterville State Hospital on May 12, 1953 and admitted its first 200 clients on June 3, 1953, according to a report from the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS). The total population peaked at more than 2,600 clients in 1957. The facility was renamed the Porterville Developmental Center in 1985 to better reflect the purpose of the facility to care for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The county’s largest hospital, Kaweah Delta Medical Center, had already announced its plan for a patient surge prior to the Governor’s order. Kaweah Delta CEO Gary Herbst announced at a news conference on April 3 that the Visalia hospital had reduced its capacity to about half in anticipation of a sharp increase in patients.

Herbst said Kaweah Delta has converted a 29-bed section into a dedicated inpatient unit for people who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or who are exhibiting symptoms. An 11-bed unit normally used for elective surgeries or procedures like knee replacements has also been converted.

Last week, Kaweah Delta finished expanding its emergency unit in preparation for the surge of coronavirus patients. The fifth and sixth floors of the hospital, which house an intermediate critical care unit and a neonatal intensive care unit, hold a total of 47 beds that will be made available.

If the hospital exceeds its capacity, Herbst said Valley Children’s Hospital is prepared to take all of Kaweah Delta’s neonatal, mother and babies, and children patients so that the hospital can free up those beds.

The Visalia Convention Center and the Visalia Mall have also said they are willing to convert to a temporary field hospital for Kaweah Delta to use.

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