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RI National Guard tours Dunk as possible COVID-19 triage center

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – State emergency officials met with staff at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the R.I. Convention Center on Thursday to explore the possibility of using the neighboring facilities as an emergency triage center if the coronavirus cripples area hospitals.

Larry Lepore, the general manager of the Convention Center, said officials from the R.I. National Guard, the R.I. Emergency Management Agency and the R.I. Department of Administration toured the facility Thursday afternoon.

Health care systems in other places such as China, Italy and even Seattle have been overwhelmed by the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. Gov. Gina Raimondo has said National Guard Adjutant Gen. Chris Callahan is leading Rhode Island’s work on a “surge capacity” plan for a potential jump in patient numbers.

Lepore said the state is looking at using both facilities to handle a large influx of patients if such a need arises, and asked his management team to estimate how many beds they could fit. Emergency officials also looked at the facility’s kitchen.

“They were impressed with the size of the kitchen,” Lepore said. “We can kick out 3,000 meals easily.”

Lepore said state officials asked when the facilities could start accepting supplies, “even for staging,” if they decide not to use the buildings as a makeshift hospital.

“The answer is right now,” he said.

The Convention Center and the Dunk, both overseen by the quasi-public R.I. Convention Center Authority, was forced to cancel all events in the wake of the governor’s call to suspend large gatherings to battle COVID-19.

Lepore said he was told state officials are also looking at locations in the southern part of the state, like the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island.

Dave Lavallee, a spokesperson for the University of Rhode Island, said in an email the state has reached out “about the possibility of using URI’s athletics facilities as an ‘Alternate Care Site’ in the event hospitals were to become overwhelmed during a pandemic.”

“This Alternate Care Site plan has been in existence for many years, but the state is carrying out due diligence in making sure the plan is up to date in light of COVID-19,” Lavellee said. “There are no immediate plans to activate one of our facilities, this is merely a planning exercise for now.”

Another option that has been mentioned repeatedly is reopening Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, which closed in 2017 after losing money for years. But it’s unclear how feasible that would be after the facility has sat unused for multiple years.

Officials have downplayed the possibility, saying that it would be challenging to activate Memorial.

“The state’s looking at all options,” Dr. James McDonald, medical director at the R.I. Department of Health, said during a news conference Sunday. “That’s complicated, though. Right now we have capacity. We’re doing OK right now.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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