Larimer County and state health officials got their wish: The region never needed to open a coronavirus overflow hospital at The Ranch in Loveland. Now, that reserve hospital is being removed without ever seeing a patient.
The overflow hospital was never used — save for housing Cameron Peak firefighters for a few cold nights during a snowstorm — and crews from Denver-based JE Dunn Construction and other subcontractors on Tuesday began deconstructing the hospital that the state built to handle potential surges of patients during the pandemic.
A letter from Colorado state architect Cheri Gerou, dated Oct. 1, gave Larimer County a month’s notice that the state was terminating the lease on 189,000 square feet of facilities at the fairgrounds complex and would take down the hospital and restore the buildings to look like they did before.
The state signed a lease April 7, agreeing to pay the county 13 cents per square foot per day, amounting to about $750,000 per month, for use of the First National Bank Exhibition Hall, McKee Community Building and Mac Equipment Indoor Arena.
The lease, which could be terminated at any time with 30 days’ notice, extended through Dec. 31 with the option for another three months’ renewal.
In April, crews prepared 200 individual patient bays at the First National Bank building and laid the groundwork to quickly add 800 more in nearby buildings if needed.
But though the pandemic surged, it never reached the point that local hospitals could not handle the number of patients, and the state never needed to open the overflow hospital for additional capacity.
No official reason given
The letter from the state terminating the lease did not say why state officials believe now is the time to tear down the hospital, and a call from the Reporter-Herald to the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management was not returned.
Lori Hodges, the county’s director of emergency management, said she thinks it is because there has not been a need for the overflow facility as local hospitals have been able to handle the need. And, she said, the state is keeping the overflow facility that was built at the Colorado Convention Center available through the year.
Katie O’Donnell, spokeswoman for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, said her office also has been asking why and has not received a definitive answer.
“They just said it seems like our hospitals have capacity, and we’re doing fine,” O’Donnell said.
When asked whether Larimer County health officials were worried about the closure now, when they have warned of the possibility of a fall surge in virus cases, she answered: “Going into the fall, I keep talking about the surge, so it does make us nervous. But it’s their facility, and they make the decisions.”
When the overflow hospital was being built, state officials said it could serve all of Northern Colorado, including both Larimer and Weld counties.
At its peak, on April 22, Larimer County had 54 people admitted to its hospitals for the coronavirus. That dropped steadily until June 12 when the county had zero COVID-19 patients in its hospitals and has since increased to a summer high of 18 on July 22. Hospitalizations in the county were at 17 on Tuesday.
And the Larimer County Department of Health website reported Tuesday that hospitals countywide were at 63% of their capacity and that 84% of intensive care unit beds were in use for all conditions. These numbers do not include the potential beds that were at the overflow hospital.
In nearby Weld County, there were 50 COVID-19 patients in the hospitals as of Monday with 528 total beds available and 124 spaces open in the intensive care units. Weld County reports number of beds rather than the percent of capacity in use on its online dashboard.
The state plans to vacate the county facilities and have them returned to their original state by Oct. 31, meaning the buildings will have been leased for just under seven months. Including the final October payment, the state will have paid the county $5,075,990 for use of the facilities, County Manager Linda Hoffmann reported.
Return to use
On Tuesday, the first day of deconstruction, crews began taking out the concrete floor that the state poured in the indoor arena to return the floor to its original state as well as removing the finished hospital bays inside the First National Bank Building.
The indoor arena traditionally featured a dirt floor for livestock and horse shows with a special, expensive dirt known as footing for the ground surface. Larimer County will return the “dozens of truckloads” of that dirt to the arena after crews have removed every last piece of the concrete floor, said Ranch director Chris Ashby.
“It’s extremely important,” Ashby said of the quality of the dirt used for the arena surface. “We literally have world-class footing in that facility. We did remove the bulk of it during construction and stored it. It will be going back in once the concrete is cleared.”
While the buildings will once again be available for county use, Ashby does not anticipate holding any major events there until next year because of restrictions on crowds during the pandemic.
The county did hold a scaled-back version of the Larimer County Fair and a drive-up July 4 fireworks display and is planning a drive-through trick-or-treat event on Halloween and the circuit finals for the PRCA Rodeo without any audience. But other than those, Ashby said he doesn’t anticipate any major events until 2021.
“Even though we may have the facilities back, we still have capacity limits,” he said. “That makes it operationally challenging.”