Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the three counties are making preparations for serving as many as 559 COVID-19 patients over the course of 55 days in the shuttered Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, where they expect to have 88 beds available.

MONTEVIDEO — Work is underway to ready the shuttered Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton to serve as a medical facility for coronavirus patients and possibly hold its first patients on Monday if necessary.

The goal is to have the former prison equipped and staffed to eventually serve as many as 559 COVID-19 patients over the course of 55 days, Brian Lovdahl, CEO of CCM Health, told the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners on Monday. Plans call for eventually having 88 beds available.

They met in an emergency meeting to unanimously approve an interest-free loan of $425,000 to CCM to assist with the expenses of converting and operating the facility as the Tri-County COVID Medical Center. The Lac qui Parle and Swift County boards of commissioners are meeting separately today to consider funding help.

CCM Health in Montevideo, and health care centers in Madison, Dawson, Appleton and Benson, are working together to equip and operate the facility to serve coronavirus patients from Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Swift counties. CoreCivic, the owner of the facility, has offered its use at no cost to the counties. The private prison has been shuttered since 2010, but it has been kept licensed and at the ready for use if needed.

Lovdahl said the work now underway is aimed at adapting three pods of the prison to provide care to patients. Using just the first floors of the two-story pods provides 304 individual rooms. The first work involves replacing the prison bunks with hospital beds and installing the range of medical equipment that would be needed.

Representatives of the five health care centers met just over a week ago to look at how to meet the needs of coronavirus care in the three counties. “Larger organizations would pray to have resources like these at our disposal,” Lovdahl said.

Currently, there are only three intensive care unit beds in the three counties, he said. The five health centers do not have the number of beds that would be needed to care for 559 patients during a two-month span of time.

Based on the data available today, Lovdahl said the health professionals in the organizations expect that 70 percent of the roughly 16,000 residents in the three-county area, or a total of 12,000 people, will be infected with COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic. About 5 percent of those infected will need hospital care, and anywhere from 1.25 to 2 percent of those hospitalized will need to be in intensive care units and provided ventilators.

While efforts are underway to slow the spread of the virus, at the current rate of new infections, the Tri-County COVID Medical Center is projected to hold 64 patients after 31 days of operations. The number of patients treated by hospitalization will reach 559 by the 55th day. The average hospital patient will need 12 days of care.

Lovdahl said there is a lack of hard data on the spread of the pandemic, and that makes it very difficult to project the needs going forward. But he noted that if no beds are needed whatsoever, each of the five health centers participating in this venture are risking no more than $10,000 to $20,000.

If the current projections to serve 559 patients proves true, the costs for providing the care will rise rapidly. The total costs for operations and providing supplies is projected to total $802,601 after 31 days of operation, and to total $6.9 million after 67 days of operations. Patients numbers will be exponentially higher in the second month of operation.

The five health care facilities will provide staffing, and Lovdahl said they are confident that they can meet the needs. Many of their health care workers are being assigned new duties as elective medical care is halted during the pandemic, he said.

CCM anticipates assigning two of its physicians to provide care at the facility. Each doctor will work separate, 12-hour shifts but will be relieved at times by other physicians.

Patients to be treated at the facility will be referred to it by health care professionals operating at the five health centers. It takes about three days to receive the results of the test for COVID-19, so patients referred to the facility will be evaluated based on their symptoms, he said.

Lovdahl told the commissioners that the five health care facilities have agreed to share the revenues and expenses for the Tri-County COVID Medical Center on the basis of an across-the-board, 20 percent share to each. It’s expected that revenues from insurance and the state and federal governments will cover all of the expenses. The health centers are seeking no-interest loans from each of the three counties to help cover the costs until the insurance and government funds can be obtained.

There has been contact with the Minnesota National Guard about the possibility of assistance at the facility. Chippewa County Sheriff Derek Olson said the sheriffs in the three counties have also been in discussions on providing for security. If help from the National Guard is needed, it would likely be similar to that provided during floods and other natural disasters.

State Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, told the commissioners that he is confident the state of Minnesota will reimburse the health centers for their costs associated with the pandemic. He told the commissioners that the state is currently looking at adapting the Xcel Energy Center to serve as a coronavirus health care center in the metropolitan area.

The legislator acknowledged how difficult it is to be proactive and confront the costs and challenges of the pandemic, but pointed out that it is about saving lives. “This is a different world we’re about with this,” he said.

In discussions, the commissioners agreed that the need to act on behalf of the health of residents makes it important to support the venture. The county may have to tap reserve funds in its road and bridge account to provide the no-interest loan if it is needed. Michelle May, county auditor/treasurer, said the county recently made its contributions to the veterans home project from its general fund reserves and consequently the reserve funds are limited.