Lawmakers question decisions over New Orleans field hospital spending, delay in reopening economy

By Dan McCaleb | The Center Square

Some Louisiana lawmakers are questioning whether staffing at a field hospital set up at the Ernst N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans to potentially treat up to 2,000 COVID-19 patients could have been reduced significantly and more quickly to save taxpayer money when they say it was clear the hospital was not going to come close to reaching capacity.

They also are questioning why Louisiana’s economy couldn’t be opened sooner given the extra available beds.

At its peak, the hospital served a little more than 100 people on a single day.

“Yes, unquestionably the state should have scaled back much sooner,” state Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, told The Center Square. “Even the people who were working there on the contract think that should have been the case.”

State officials signed contracts totaling $192 million to pay for staff, and to build and equip the field hospital, where 2,000 tents were installed to isolate potential COVID-19 patients. Of the 2,000 tents, 1,000 were supplied with beds, Kevin Litten with the Louisiana Department of Health said.

About $97 million, or roughly half of the field hospital’s contracted cost, was dedicated to staffing; $57 million was initially spent on medical professionals from around the country to travel to help patients in New Orleans, according to reports published in June by The Times-Picayune, The Advocate, and WWL-TV.

The contract called for health care workers, many of whom came in from out of state, and the staffing companies that hired them between $240 and $350 an hour to staff the hospital, depending on their position, even though it never came close to reaching its full capacity, according to the report.

“There were probably 150 bodies in that convention center at any one time that were staffed to watch 12 people,” Dr. Lindsey Jackson, an emergency medicine physician from Texas, told the media outlets, adding that she and other workers offered to head home early because they weren’t needed but their offers were ignored.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, told The Center Square that the initial build out of the hospital was half of what it ended up being, but the state went ahead doubled capacity even though it wasn’t needed.

“We had less than 100 patients, and the director said we didn’t need to build out for the others but the governor insisted we should,” Seabaugh said. “So we doubled the expense when there was absolutely no reason to double the expense. And it cost a lot of state money.”

The federal government is expected to pay for 75 percent of the cost of the field hospital. Louisiana taxpayers will pay the remaining 25 percent.

“The Governor has acted to protect the health and safety of the people of Louisiana in very uncertain times,” Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens told The Center Square. “Given our trajectory in March and April and the very high number of COVID cases in Louisiana, it was necessary to create additional capacity because we could have overrun our ability to deliver health care.”

Casey Tingle, deputy director for Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (GOSHEP), said the contract called for building out to 2,000 beds.

“Once it became clear that all of them weren’t going to be needed, we began to right size,” he said.

The office is in the process of scaling it down to 250 beds, 60 of which are currently staffed, he said.

Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, questioned how the contracts were awarded while no-bid provisions were in place and after Edwards’ suspension of the state’s ethics provision prohibiting former state employees from being hired as private contractors. One of the contracts went to Dynamic Construction LLC, which named former Adjutant General of the Louisiana National Guard, Glenn Curtis, as the director of operations.

“It is reasonable to be concerned anytime the governor unilaterally suspends state procurement policy and sidesteps our ethics laws,” Miguez said. “Legislative oversight is critical to ensure the efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

GOHSEP awarded the $45 million contract to set up the field hospital. Tingle said the state was trying to move quickly to build out the hospital, but also accepted a bid from Lemoine Company.

“Operationally, Louisiana was on the front end of this [coronavirus],” he said. “Hospital capacity and the trajectory we were on” were major concerns.

With the added bed capacity the makeshift hospital provided, Nelson also said the state’s economy should have reopened much sooner to save many of the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were lost in the state.

“The whole purpose of expanding the hospital capacity was to ensure our hospitals didn’t get overwhelmed,” Nelson said. “The goal of that was to reopen the economy that we really never did – at least not fully. We’re still under restrictions to some extent.”

Seabaugh agreed.

“The reason for the shutdown in the first place was so we didn’t overflow the hospitals,” he said. “So that was never in danger of happening. At that point, everything should have reopened.”

Edwards put the first restrictions in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March. His executive orders initially closed bars, theaters, fitness facilities, hair salons, barber shops, dentist offices, museums, shopping malls and other businesses he deemed nonessential, limited restaurants to delivery and carryout only, and banned gatherings of 50 or more people in the same room, among other restrictions.

The field hospital opened in early April.

Though Edwards eased some restrictions beginning in May, many still remain in place, including orders that keep bars closed for in-person service, limit many other businesses to half of their usual capacity, and restrict indoor crowd sizes to 50 people or fewer. Many bars and other businesses have sued Edwards and the state, claiming the restrictions threaten their and workers’ livelihoods. To date, the lawsuits have been largely unsuccessful. Plaintiffs also say threatened enforcement of the executive orders violates the due process, equal protection and takings clauses of both the state and U.S. Constitution.

The restrictions led to massive numbers of workers filing for unemployment benefits beginning in late March.

Continued claims for unemployment benefits – those who have filed at least two weeks in a row – stood at 299,974 in the week ending Aug. 8. That’s 17 times higher than the 17,513 continued claims for the week ending Aug. 10, 2019.

And those numbers don’t include about 150,000 self-employed and gig workers who are not eligible for state unemployment benefits because they don’t have employers paying into the system, but received federal pandemic unemployment assistance, economist Stephen Barnes said. So Louisiana still has about 450,000 people receiving unemployment benefits, he added.

“Moms and pops [locally owned small businesses] are closing and many are saying they aren’t ever going to reopen,” Seabaugh said. “The long-term effects have been devastating.”

Stephens said Edwards was following the the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s guidelines in issuing the restrictions, which she noted requires 14 days of declining new COVID cases and declining hospitalizations.

“We’ve used these metrics, per the White House, to guide our decisions,” she said of the Edwards administration. “In addition, the White House Coronavirus Task Force has Louisiana in the ‘red zone’ for new cases and is supportive of our current mitigation measures, including the closure of bars to on-site consumption and also the statewide mask mandate.”

As of Wednesday, 4,494 hospital beds in the state remained available, according to the Louisiana Department of Health’s website, or about 45 percent of the total. Also, 624 ICU beds were available, or 43 percent of the total statewide, according to the Department of Health.

Hospital bed availability does not include the number of vacant beds at the field hospital.

Also as of Wednesday, 1,659 of the state’s 2,216 ventilators were available, according to the department, or about 75 percent of the total. Ventilators have been an important tool in helping to treat patients with severe cases of COVID-19.

Louisiana has seen a cumulative total of 103,903 positive coronavirus cases as of Wednesday and 4,468 deaths.

“Every action the Governor has undertaken has been with the public’s safety and health in mind and has been made after detailed review of data and on the expert of public health experts and doctors,” Stephens said.

Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said the legislature will be reviewing the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Certainly, in hindsight, some of the actions taken by Gov. Edwards to ramp up medical care were unnecessary,” Bacala told The Center Square. “I do believe that it was done in good faith in expectation of a greater need, particularly for ventilators, than was actually experienced. As with most things of this magnitude, I believe there will be a great deal of review of the actions taken in the state in the months to come. In doing so, we should get a clear picture of any discrepancies that occurred.”