Alaska Airlines Center transformed into an alternate care site that officials hope never to use

In a place once used as a basketball court, rows of blue and white curtains now line the floors of the Alaska Airlines Center gym. The curtains section off cubicles intended to house low-care-level patients if Anchorage hospitals overcrowd during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials from three Anchorage hospitals, the municipality, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers began planning to create an alternate-care site more than a month ago when they saw the impact the virus was having on some states in the Lower 48.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska remains low, officials said they hope the facility will never have to be used.

[Barber shops, nail salons, retail and restaurants: Alaska’s plan to reopen starts to take shape]

“It’s better to be prepared or over-prepared,” said Julie Taylor, CEO of Alaska Regional Hospital.

The space is currently outfitted to care for 51 patients, but can be expanded to 163 beds if needed, said Providence Alaska Medical Center CEO Ella Goss. Funding for the site was split between participating organizations. Each bed cost roughly $29,000.

Goss said it took about a week to a week and a half to outfit the center with equipment. Crews from the Corps of Engineers added plumbing for hand-washing stations, and each cubicle was set up with individual lights and outlets and a special air filtration system. The bleachers are folded along the back wall and a scoreboard looks out over the cubicles.

The makeshift medical center would first accept non-COVID-19 patients who require a low level of care, Goss said. Officials would consider using the alternate-care site once hospital capacities reach between roughly 75% to 85%.

Goss said the facility is intended to aid all of Alaska, as patients with more severe conditions or patients from rural communities are generally flown to Anchorage for treatment.

We're making coronavirus coverage available without a subscription as a public service. But we depend on reader support to do this work. Please consider joining others in supporting local journalism in Alaska for just $3.23 a week.

Officials said Tuesday that there are still plenty of beds available in Anchorage hospitals. Data from the state Department of Health and Social Services on Tuesday showed 45% of inpatient beds are occupied statewide, meaning 970 are still available.

As the city and state look toward reopening businesses and stores in upcoming weeks, Taylor said there is a possibility that more COVID-19 cases could appear.

“That’s probably why we’re doing this more than anything,” she said. “If we continue just to stay down, you can see what we don’t need, but we can’t live that way. We need to come out and we need to learn new behaviors to interact in the world. And that includes people getting sick and getting better, so to have this as a backup plan in case it all gets really bad is very prudent, and I think it will be the reason why we can get through this to the other side.”

[Anchorage unveils a plan to move on from the ‘hunker down’ coronavirus order]

Taylor said it will be important that people remain cautious and continue following appropriate social distancing and sanitation guidelines to curb the spread of the virus.

“I’ve always said, ‘I hope this place never opens,’ but knowing what it’s done in other communities, it seems like we would be dodging a bullet for this place not to open," said Dr. Tim Bateman of the Alaska Hospitalist Group.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]