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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Why Crews Are Still Building Hundreds Of Extra Hospital Beds At The Ranch

Inside one of The Ranch Events Complex’ exhibition halls in Loveland, the Army Corps of Engineers is putting the finishing touches on more than 200 new COVID-19 isolation pods.

They’re lined up in several long rows, forming a maze of hallways. It still smells like wet paint.

Joe Caracillo, a construction manager with the corps, says they could be ready for patients by this weekend.

“The team’s built hospitals before,” he says while standing inside a small, square room. “But converting arenas to patient facilities is a brand new idea the Corps has never done.”

The spread of the coronavirus appears to be slowing in Colorado, for now. So far hospitals have been able to absorb the number of hospitalizations related to the virus.

But public health officials are warning that once the economy reopens, the number of cases could spike again. By how much is uncertain.

So, to be prepared, the state is building several medical overflow facilities as a sort of insurance policy.

Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC News
Construction workers move drywall inside the First National Bank Exhibition Hall at The Ranch in Loveland. The hall will hold around 200 COVID-19 isolation pods for patients from local hospitals.

The facility at The Ranch is technically called an alternative care site. It's meant for COVID-19 patients in Northern Colorado who have been hospitalized, but are stable.

Having the extra beds is an important part of making sure local hospitals don’t get overwhelmed if there is a surge in the coming months. Each individual pod being built in Loveland is big enough for a bed, nurse call, lights and an oxygen tank.

The Ranch could eventually hold as many as 1,060 of these pods along with locker rooms, showers and bathrooms. But the facility likely won’t get that big -- at least not right away.

“We really hope that this facility isn’t needed or is only needed minimally,” said Gov. Jared Polis during a tour of the The Ranch this week.

Polis first made the call to go ahead and build the facility earlier this month.

He said he’d like to see at least 400 beds open in Loveland and hundreds more inside the Colorado Convention Center in Denver by the end of April before lifting the statewide stay-at-home order.

“It’s not that it’s not impossible that we'll need more beds in the future,” Polis said. “But I’m confident that gives us the buffer we need to move forward with reopening the economy, getting people back to work and earning a living.”

Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC News
Gov. Jared Polis talks to reporters during a tour of The Ranch on April 14.

With all the momentum around The Ranch facility and others like it, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how it works.

For example, it’s not clear who’s providing the medical staff needed to look after patients. Polis said it would be Banner Health.

But a spokeswoman for Banner told KUNC it won’t be providing medical oversight due to a lack of personnel.

As of Friday, a contractor for staffing at The Ranch still hadn’t been publicly announced.

Another question is who’s paying for it. Expenses are expected to run upwards of $30 million, according to Gov. Polis' office. Typically, state and federal governments would split the project costs.

But Polis and other governors recently asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fully reimburse states, citing the “unprecedented size, scale and duration of the pandemic response.”

The federal government still hasn’t said whether it will or not.

Despite the unknowns, the Colorado state Unified Command Center, which is overseeing the operation, estimates construction will be finished by April 29.

Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC News
A construction worker hammers the base of a COVID-19 isolation pod inside The Ranch in Loveland

During a tour of the site, local officials said despite promising signs that Northern Colorado’s infection curve was flattening, hospitals could still get overwhelmed in the near future.

“We want to be ready for that,” said Lori Hodges, director of emergency management in Larimer County. “If we do have that surge and they need our help, we want to have a facility that’s ready.”

The Ranch’s central location between Loveland, Greeley and Fort Collins made it a logical choice for the facility, she added. It’s also close to the Northern Colorado Regional Airport and Interstate 25.

Tom Gonzales, the county’s public health director, said thanks to social distancing efforts, the community’s transmission rate has dropped by “at least 60%.”

But it’s likely that only a small percentage of the total population has been infected, which means there will be a jump once businesses start to reopen and more people go out in public, he added.

“I would encourage residents to continue some social distancing as we step down (stay-at-home orders),” Gonzales said.

The state has signed a lease with the county to use The Ranch as an alternative care site through January 2021.

The Ranch’s campus of several arenas, exhibition halls and the Budweiser Events Center would normally be hosting music concerts, hockey games and livestock shows throughout the year. But now the fate of most of those events is uncertain, said Steve Johnson, chairman of the Board of Larimer County Commissioners.

“Everybody realizes that health and safety is the number one thing,” Johnson said. “We’re fortunate we have this and that it’s available and we’re happy to make it available for public health purposes.”

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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