The headlines more than a year ago were grim: The state had purchased a former cold-storage produce warehouse in St. Paul to store potentially more than 5,000 bodies as the COVID-19 pandemic raged.
Although the coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 7,400 Minnesotans over the past 15 months, such dire arrangements for a makeshift morgue ultimately weren't needed. Now, as the pandemic ebbs, state officials soon will decide whether to sell the property or repurpose it.
"Fortunately, the number of deaths during the pandemic's peak did not overwhelm the capacity of morgues and funeral homes around the state as had occurred in other states, and the [building] was not used to store bodies," said Curtis Yoakum, spokesman for the state Department of Administration.
The state's decision to buy the 71,000-square-foot former Bix Produce Co. grocery distribution facility for $5.5 million was controversial among some St. Paul and Ramsey County leaders. They worried about the social and economic implications of locating a morgue in the North End, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
The warehouse is north of downtown St. Paul in the Arlington-Jackson Business Center and had been on the market for more than a year after Bix Produce moved to new quarters in Little Canada.
There was some thought that the warehouse could serve as a storage site for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which initially needed to be stored at extremely low temperatures.
But that didn't happen because the federal government opted to ship vaccines directly to health care providers and other entities administering them.
Yoakum said the site was instead used to store temperature-sensitive testing kits as well as excess personal protective equipment, or PPE, until it could be distributed to hospitals, clinics and other health care providers.
Last year, for example, the state received a large PPE shipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was unscheduled, so it temporarily landed at the St. Paul site.
Yoakum said the federal government reimbursed the state for the $5.5 million used to buy the site. An additional $214,000 in construction work, plus $300,000 in operations and maintenance costs, will be submitted for federal reimbursement as well.
Once the Minnesota Department of Health determines the building is no longer needed, the state will have to decide its fate — it could be repurposed or declared surplus property.
If the latter is the case, Yoakum said, "There is a well-established state process for the disposition of surplus property which culminates in offering the property on the open market for fair market value."
Unused medical space
Another site in the east metro identified by the state during the 2020 surge to help ease potential crowding in hospitals also wasn't used for its intended purpose.
In April 2020, the state signed a lease for Presbyterian Homes-Langton Place in Roseville, a vacant former care center. The site was set aside to provide low-level medical care for non-COVID patients, in the event that Twin Cities hospitals were overwhelmed with virus patients.
Even though 32,256 Minnesotans have been hospitalized with COVID-19, the Roseville site ultimately wasn't needed.
"Minnesotans can be relieved and thankful that the Roseville alternate care site facility was not needed even at the height of the late 2020 surge in cases," said Health Department spokesman Michael Schommer.
"This was due in no small part to the good work of hospitals managing patient loads," he added.
FEMA reimbursed the state just more than $2 million for the cost of preparing the site, as well as rent and utilities.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752