PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When a state-touted model projected COVID-19 hospitalizations could reach astonishingly high totals by this week, the potential need for extra beds made sense to many.
Three buildings were retrofitted with beds and other equipment as overflow hospitals at a cost of just under $34 million dollars, according to the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
The state signed a trio of six-month leases costing $1 million each month for the space in the R.I. Convention Center, a former Lowe’s store in North Kingstown owned by the Commerce Corporation and a privately owned building in Cranston.
The lease for the North Kingstown building at $100,000 a month is the only one that can be terminated early without penalty.
The three field locations bring the state’s total number of available hospital beds to about 3,500.
But since Gov. Gina Raimondo released the model that included a potential need for between 2,000 and 4,000 hospitalizations, the daily totals have hovered around 300.
So far, the overflow facilities have remained empty other than for members of the R.I. National Guard — on stand-by in case of a surge.
Raimondo expressed no regrets when asked about the cost and lack of usage of the facilities. She indicated that could change when patients who need elective procedures are once again admitted to hospitals.
“Even if we don’t have another surge, it is entirely possible hospitals may desire that they need to for infection control reasons use some of these field hospitals,” Raimondo said. “I haven’t seen any data indicating the hospitals will not be used.”
Raimondo said she may have an announcement by next week about changes in what types of patients hospitals can serve.
House Minorty Leader Blake Filippi, a Republican representing Charlestown, South Kingstown, New Shoreham and Westerly, did not second guess the decision to lease and equip the three buildings.
He considers the extra beds an insurance policy if there’s a surge when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“Without the field hospitals, I don’t see how we could reopen the economy,” Filippi said. “The impact of reopening the economy will be far greater than the cost of the hospitals.”
The South County Republican said he does remain concerned about what he calls a lack of oversight of emergency spending during the crisis.
Last week, a General Assembly joint legislative task force started examining the cost of the overflow hospitals, but Filippi questioned its partisan makeup of eight democrats and two republicans
“I want to make sure that money was spent as responsibly as possible,” Filippi said. “And that’s why we’ve been calling daily for House Oversight to get together and do its job and make sure this money is spent the way it benefits Rhode Islanders.”
Filippi did question why the state went with the private building in Cranston, pointing out the money could have otherwise helped the state more if it was used to lease a state-owned or subsidized building, such as the Convention Center.
Raimondo, Filippi and others have also emphasized the overflow hospital cost and other virus-related spending will be covered by the federal CARES Act, although it is still money provided by taxpayers.