One thing the coronavirus outbreak has taught us is that we have limited resources, at least when it comes to funding.
Consider that the funds set aside for small businesses in the Paycheck Protection Program ran out in a matter of weeks. And that’s the federal government. State governments have even less budgetary room to play around with, and counties have even less money.
So imagine what Harris County, home to Houston, must be feeling right now given that when it’s all said and done, they will have spent about $17 million on a temporary hospital that has yet to see a single patient.
According to KPRC-TV, the coronavirus hospital could have cost Harris County as much as $60 million. Instead, the final price tag will likely be around $17 million, even though the facility did virtually nothing — which is why it could soon be closed.
“Construction on the temporary medical shelter began just over two weeks ago and was finished in a matter of days. It features 250 beds and is equipped to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients,” KPRC reported of the temporary hospital, which is situated at NRG Park.
“We don’t want to be caught flat-footed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said back when officials thought the hospital was necessary. “We are working to stay ahead of this.”
The problem isn’t just that Harris County stayed ahead of coronavirus to the extent that the hospital didn’t need to see a single patient. It’s also about the fact that Harris County had a dubious arrangement with Garner Environmental Services, which designed the hospital and has helped run it.
For instance, various security officers at the site received daily remuneration of $2,875, $2,300 and $2,012, KPRC reported.
A finance section chief made $2,875 a day, the outlet added.
Meanwhile, two public information officers reportedly made $2,012 a day. That might not seem that bad until you realize the contract stipulated that “contact with the news media, citizens of Harris County or governmental agencies shall be the responsibility of the county.”
And while the hospital was constructed before Houston was experiencing peak resource usage, the city never came close to using enough beds to divert patients to the makeshift facility.
“We are still within the hospitals’ abilities to handle the load,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the day before the contract with Garner was signed.
To be fair, the federal government has said it will cover 75 percent of the cost for the hospital, which means the good news for Harris County is that they won’t have to pay the full $17 million.
Of course, the bad news is that you’ll have to pay for it if you pay federal taxes. And for a county, $4.25 million is still a fair amount of money.
Absolutely awesome shoe-leather reporting from @KPRC2‘s investigative team and @kprc2mario showing what’s really going on with the NRG Center’s makeshift hospital. Local reporting really matters.https://t.co/YCWC2Zp8Yd
— Ellen Carmichael (@ellencarmichael) April 22, 2020
As for the people behind the hospital, don’t expect them to explain it, either. John Temperelli, vice president of Garner Environmental Services, had scheduled two interviews with KPRC. On both occasions, the outlet reported, he canceled.
In any case, county officials are looking at ending the contract and dismantling the hospital.
“County officials, including the health department and NRG representatives, met Wednesday morning to discuss the future of the temporary healthcare facility at NRG Park,” KPRC reported.
“It’s time that we do everything we can to begin the process of unwinding and cutting the cost on this hospital,” County Commissioner Jack Cagle said.
“Cagle said he has informed Commissioners Court that he will bring an agenda item next Tuesday to discuss the termination of the contract,” according to the outlet.
This isn’t the first makeshift hospital that didn’t even see a patient. In Seattle, a medical center constructed at the CenturyLink Field Event Center also turned out to be a huge waste of resources, and was dismantled earlier this month after not being populated by a single individual who didn’t work there.
“Don’t let this decision give you the impression that we are out of the woods. We have to keep our guard up and continue to stay home unless conducting essential activities to keep everyone healthy,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.
“We requested this resource before our physical distancing strategies were fully implemented and we had considerable concerns that our hospitals would be overloaded with Covid-19 cases. But we haven’t beat this virus yet, and until we do, it has the potential to spread rapidly if we don’t continue the measures we’ve put in place.”
And yet, I don’t blame these officials one bit.
The main model for health care capacity was the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model, which was way off in terms of hospital capacity needs.
For instance, take their prediction for New York City. The IHME model predicted NYC would need over 50,000 hospital beds on April 1. The actual number was just over 12,000. If you were an engineer and you were that far off, you’d be doing time.
In the case of Harris County, you do have to consider the fact they apparently signed the worst contract since Ryan Leaf’s rookie deal.
Aside from that, though, it was the overcooked models that were responsible for this. In almost every city, the apocalyptic predictions of massive hospital overflow never came true; they all had enough capacity to deal with patients.
When this is over, we need to figure out why the models were so very wrong.
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