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Planning for the worst: Temple’s Liacouras Center to open for overflow COVID patients next week

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

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

Despite a decline in the number of new coronavirus cases each day in Philadelphia, city officials are preparing for the worst.

The 10,000-seat basketball and events arena at Temple University, the Liacouras Center, is fully stocked with 180 beds, oxygen lines, dedicated ambulances and adequate personal protective equipment.

Officials said it will be ready to start taking patients next Thursday, April 16.

“Hopefully, we never have to use it,” said Sandy Gomberg, who is serving as CEO of the facility. “But if we do, we are ready.”

The site will be for COVID-19-positive patients that are stable and don’t need to be on ventilators but still require hospitalization. The center will allow them to be moved out of the region’s hospitals to make room for more critically ill patients. Gomberg said that leadership from the area’s Care Management Organizations visited the center on Friday to get a sense of the level of care it could provide and to inform their decisions about when to send patients there.

On Tuesday, White House COVID-19 response director Deborah Birx pointed to Philadelphia as one of several potential next “hotspots” for the coronavirus. But when asked about her remarks, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley suggested that her data must be outdated, and noted that the increase in daily positive cases has begun to fall in Philadelphia.

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy offered some clarity on the mixed messaging Friday, explaining that while Philadelphia’s numbers might be declining, the city’s position as a hub in the region means its medical system could end up absorbing patients from Delaware, northern Maryland and southern New Jersey.

“What’s happening in those states is going to have an impact in our hospitals,” Abernathy said.

Temple University medical students work to prepare 180 beds at the Liacouras Center, which is set to open April 16 to accommodate an overflow of COVID-19 patients in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

While the number of new cases in Philadelphia is plateauing, he added, the need for hospital beds is increasing.

“Certainly if being designated a hotspot brings additional resources, we’d welcome additional resources,” he said. “We are making every effort to plan for the worst.”

The Liacouras Center site will be staffed by volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps, health professionals working at local health systems that will be redeployed, and those offered through independent staffing agencies.

Gomberg said the site’s designers consulted with doctors in Italy and at New York’s Javits Center to understand what worked there and what didn’t. From Italian physicians, she said, they learned it was important to have dedicated ambulances for the facility, so that uninfected patients aren’t exposed to the virus if they are transported in an ambulance that a COVID-19-positive patient had previously occupied.

Abernathy said some of the funding used to set up the Liacouras site would come out of the $85 million emergency appropriation passed by City Council, and more they hope will be reimbursed through the federal government’s aid package. Mayor Jim Kenney said he hoped some of the federal dollars that had been paying for the South Philly drive-through testing site that is shutting down could be shifted to reimburse the city for its set-up at the arena.

Kenney said if the need is great enough, the capacity at Liacouras could expand, and could even extend to the Pennsylvania Convention Center if necessary.

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