Liacouras ‘COVID surge facility’ opens with no patients

Temple University’s Liacouras Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Temple University’s Liacouras Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Temple University’s cavernous Liacouras Center remains empty after its first day open as a field hospital for Philadelphia’s coronavirus patients.

The city had set up the 200-bed “COVID Surge Facility” in conjunction with the university, which offered the 10,000-seat sports arena at no cost.

Aided with federal funds, city officials remade the university facility into a hospital site at the end of March in anticipation of a surge in coronavirus patients that would overwhelm local hospitals. They said they hoped to never have to use the facility. But if and when it was needed, the field hospital would help free up bed space in other facilities by accepting patients in the end stages of recovery from COVID-19.

Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, confirmed there had been no admissions from any hospitals by end-of-day Thursday.

Earlier in the week, at least one high-ranking hospital official expressed confusion about the use and purpose of the facility. Dr. Gerard Criner, Chair and Professor of Thoracic Medicine and Surgery at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine, heads the university’s main COVID-19 unit.

“I’m unclear what type of patients they’re taking, to be honest,” Criner said of Liacouras. “I’ve not been told directly, I’ve been told different things, that they’re taking people, non-COVID [patients], or people that need shelter or something, I don’t know if they’re taking patients … I don’t know what they’re taking. No one’s told me.”

Cofrancisco countered that the city was in constant communication with top medical officials from all major hospitals about use of the site.

“How the hospital systems communicate this information and decide how they will use the site is up to them,” she said.

Department of Health spokesperson James Garrow said city public health officials were unsure exactly why there had been no demand for the facility.

At a press briefing Thursday, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley urged hospitals to seek bed space in traditional hospitals before opting for space in the arena. Garrow speculated that hospital administrators might simply be following Farley’s instructions.

He said bed space in the Liacouras Center would nevertheless remain available for future use.

“The COVID Surge Facility stands ready to accept patients to offset the burden at local hospitals,” he said.

Approximately 41% of hospital beds, 37% of intensive care unit beds and nearly 70% of the state’s ventilators are still available, said Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine in a Thursday briefing. And according to the state’s data, mitigation and prevention measures taken by the governor have been working.

But some health experts, like Dr. Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, cautioned that there could be a coming shortage in long-term recovery beds –– similar to those in the Liacouras Center.

“I think Pennsylvania is currently doing okay in terms of capacity for ICU beds or ventilators,” he said. “But some worry still that, as some people go through hospitalization for COVID-19, many won’t be able to go straight home and need chronic care facilities. We’re not sure we have enough of those.”

City Hall is currently covering the costs of the Liacouras surge facility, in hopes of later reimbursement, such as submission as a recoupable cost under President Donald Trump’s National Emergency declaration.

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