Amid coronavirus crisis, vacant Sears becomes a hospital in Riverside County

A day after nearly 100 skilled nursing center patients were evacuated from a Riverside County facility because of staffing issues, officials announced plans to open a second temporary hospital in the western part of the county to alleviate stress at area hospitals amid the coronavirus crisis.

County officials closed the Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center on Wednesday after several employees didn’t show up for work. Earlier in the week, 34 patients and 16 employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the county’s public health officer.

Kaiser said it was unclear why employees didn’t go to work, but the issue troubles officials as cases continue to rise in the county. As of Thursday evening, there were 1,280 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 125 recoveries and 33 deaths in Riverside County.

“Nationwide all of our healthcare workers are considered heroes and they rightly are. They are the first line of defense,” Kaiser said during a media briefing Wednesday. “But implicit in that heroism is the people stay at their posts. I am concerned this could rise to the level of abandonment no matter how justified the reasoning might be, and the state licensing board will have to determine.”

In response, officials said Thursday that they would turn a former Sears department store on Arlington Avenue into a temporary facility. The 90,000-square-foot building will house 125 beds, which were provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, officials said. The county had been searching for a location for about two weeks.

Jose Arballo, the county’s senior public information specialist, said staffers will be working “really quickly” to get the federal medical center up and running. It was unclear when the facility would be ready to accept patients.

“Moving out the medically fragile folks from Magnolia [Rehabilitation and Nursing Center] was just the beginning,” Kaiser said. “There will be many folks who [will] need care when our hospitals start taking hits, and this second station means we’ll have the same added capacity in our western county as we do in the east.”

The federal medical center will have all of the equipment used to run a basic hospital, such as portable sinks, medications and complete units of personal protective equipment, officials said. The materials will be set up on the second floor of the building to create two stations that will care for less acute patients. About 30 to 40 employees will be staffed there.

Riverside County hospitals will move stable, noncritical patients to this location and the county’s other federal medical station in Indio. This will allow greater capacity in the county’s existing hospitals to respond to the needs of more critical patients, officials said.

“We will very soon need every single hospital bed in Riverside County,” county Supervisor Karen Spiegel said. “This medical station will give us sorely needed bed space, so that medical teams can continue their heroic efforts to treat more patients in need.”

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