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County provides COVID vaccines, testing, antibody therapy at former Palomar hospital

Brian Cohen of Palomar Health leads a tour of the COVID-19 vaccine station at the former Palomar Medical Center.
Brian Cohen explains how the COVID-19 vaccine station works in the parking structure of old Palomar Medical Center in downtown Escondido. He is in charge of the station. Vaccines will take place on three different levels of the parking structure.
(Charlie Neuman/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The former Palomar Medical Center in downtown Escondido will fall to the wrecking ball some time in the future, but its final months will be spent once again performing life-saving duties.

Diane Hansen, president and CEO of Palomar Health, said the aging building may be the first site in the country to offer coronavirus testing, COVID-19 vaccines and antibody therapy in a single facility.

“What we have right here is what our nation needs,” she said Monday, Feb. 8, in a press conference at the building. “The triple- threat against this virus.”

Vaccines will be provided in a drive-through system on three floors of the old hospital’s parking garage Tuesdays through Saturday. The first 400 vaccines were administered Saturday, Feb. 6, and the site has the capacity of providing up to 1,400 a day, Hansen said.

Coronavirus testing started Monday, Feb. 8, and will be provided from 1 to 5 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and and Friday, with 48 tests given each day. Reservations for vaccines and tests must be made at PalomarHealth.org/vaccine.

The site also will provide monoclonal antibody treatment for people who are experiencing mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms but do not require hospitalization. The treatments will be provided daily, but referrals from physicians are required.

Palomar Health Chief Operations Officer Sheila Brown said the health care provider already has administered the treatment to 27 patients at other sites.

The hospital opened in the eastern end of downtown Escondido in 1953. In 2012 most of its operations were transferred to the new Palomar Medical Center on Citracado Parkway in Escondido.

The old building will be demolished and replaced with the Palomar Heights project, a mix of 510 commercial and residential units approved last month by the Escondido City Council.

“For the past 70 years, this location has been a beacon for tens of thousands who had their babies here, said goodbye to their grandparents and loved ones here,” Hansen said about the Escondido building. Hansen also recalled that the building was topped with an electric Christmas tree that community members could see for miles each holiday season.

Palomar Health CEO Diane Hansen.
Palomar Health CEO Diane Hansen speaks during a press conference in front of Palomar Medical Center’s former downtown Escondido location, which will be used for coronavirus testing, COVID-19 vaccines and antibody treatment for people with the disease.
(Photo by Charlie Neuman)

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said 20,000 people already can be vaccinated each day throughout the region, and a new super station for North County will be announced soon. Super stations cans vaccinate up to 5,000 people a day, and North County already has one at Cal State San Marcos.

The Palomar site is the first drive-up vaccination site for North County, and it will include a pedestrian station for people who take public transportation or have vehicles too tall to fit in the parking structure.

The county also operates a drive-through super station at Petco Park, which can provide up to 5,000 vaccinations a day. That site has been plagued by hours-long lines and traffic jams in downtown San Diego, where people show up hours before their appointments.

While the Escondido operation will be much smaller, Hansen and other officials at Palomar Health said they have learned lessons from the Petco super station and other sites.

Brian Cohen, director of orthopedic and spine services for Palomar Health, helped convert the parking garage into a vaccination site and said he visited other vaccination sites while putting the new one in place.

“It’s the most fun we’ve had in the parking garage,” he said while leading a tour of the first level, which has been made brighter with rows of light bulbs strung overhead.

Cohen said volunteers from Escondido’s Community Emergency Response Team will provide traffic control outside the hospital campus, and people will be directed into different entries depending on whether they are getting tests, vaccines or antibody treatment.

Motorists arriving at the campus will pull up to an attendant who will verify their appointment, Cohen said. To prevent vehicles from backing up onto the street, he said motorists may be asked to wait in a 100-space parking lot before entering the garage.

Portable restrooms also will be in the parking lot for people who are waiting their turn, he said.

Once in the garage, people will pull up to one of 10 stations on each of three floors to receive the Pfizer vaccine. To guard against running out of shots or having some unused at the end of the day, Cohen said people working at the stations will call Palomar Medical Center pharmacists at Citracado Parkway to have more vaccines sent over when needed.

— Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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