The convention center, managed by ASM Global, has become a 600-bed field hospital. (Courtesy venue)

Set up as field hospital in spring, it’s now getting COVID-19 overflow

The Rhode Island Convention Center is again being used as a field hospital.

The ASM Global-managed facility in Providence had been set up over two weeks in late March and early April as a field hospital to handle overflow from local hospitals as the novel coronavirus spread in the U.S. But as was the case at a number of convention centers and other venues, it wasn’t ultimately needed, said Lawrence Lepore, general manager of the convention center and the adjacent arena, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

The hospital had been set up by the Army Corps of Engineers, which awarded a contract to AECOM to design it. It was about to be decommissioned and the state hired a contractor in early November to convert the center back into a convention hall, Lepore said. All equipment was removed when a request to stand down was issued and about two weeks ago, amid the current surge in COVID hospitalizations, it was decided that the field hospital would be reactivated.

On Dec. 2, the first COVID-19 patients were checked into the 600-bed field hospital, Lepore said.

“To say it’s a field hospital is probably not fair because it’s more than that,” Lepore said. “It has a triage unit, a pharmacy, an X-ray department. It’s probably close to the same care you would get in the hospital. There’s negative pressure in the exhibit hall. It’s the real deal.”

In March and April, hospitals in Rhode Island suspended surgeries, but this time around, that measure was not feasible and demand for hospital beds has exceeded capacity, Lepore said.

Even though the hospital was not used in the spring, the facility was used for COVID testing, which was run by the Rhode Island National Guard, Lepore said.

“To this day we are still doing COVID testing in the garage, which is two floors under the hospital,” he said.

Two types of tests are being done. On one level of the parking garage, by-appointment, drive-through PCR testing is being administered by the National Guard, while on another level CVS is administering rapid tests for health care workers and first responders, with results from the latter available in 15-30 minutes.

“They do about 350 (tests) a day,” Lepore said.

On Wednesday, a new type of testing that is self-administered under the observation of National Guard personnel began on the floor of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. That one yields results in about 15 minutes, Lepore said.

About 500 people made appointments on the first day, and that will ramp up to about 2,000 a day, Lepore said. As of Dec. 3, about 1.2 million tests have been administered at the two facilities.

One of the factors that made the arena suitable as a testing location is its high-capacity HVAC system, which is capable of quickly sucking out smoke from things like pyrotechnic displays and thus can exchange air rapidly and minimize the risk from airborne virus, Lepore said.

Convention center and arena staff are also assisting in assembling PCR COVID test kits for use throughout Rhode Island, he said.

The state was looking for a company to handle the task, but Lepore and his team stepped in and offered their services.

“We converted our media work room, our media interview room, some of our storage areas and all of our dressing rooms into little assembly lines where we brought back employees to build test kits,” he said. “We’re building about 12,000 kits a day.”

All of these efforts have allowed Lepore to bring back more than 60 of the facilities’ roughly 150 full-time employees, who had been laid off after the convention center and arena were shut down March 9 as the arena was preparing to host initial rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Lepore said.

The arena has two main tenants, the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins and Providence College men’s basketball. The hockey team is eyeing a possible February return, probably without fans, and the hoops team has moved its home games to Alumni Hall on campus, also without fans.

The public service role is further evidence of public assembly facilities proving their worth as community assets even when they aren’t generating economic impact from events like concerts, meetings and trade shows.

“If they had given it to a private company, they would have charged a percentage. That’s something we are not doing,” Lepore said. “We are getting some rent to operate the building and the state is reimbursing us for labor, all under CARES Act money, and at the end of the day, instead of the state having to fund us, when this is all over, several million dollars — that probably won’t be necessary now. The rent is very favorable (compared) to what we would normally get and that allows us, certainly this year, to meet budget and going forward we’ll be in a much better place when we transition back to being the type of business we’re supposed to be.”

That transition, Lepore says, can occur almost overnight for the arena, the use of which the state has secured through June 30, but will probably take about two months after the decommissioning of the field hospital.