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The public safety director at the New Orleans convention center that is being transformed into a makeshift hospital for coronavirus patients was arrested Friday for allegedly stealing dozens of masks meant for medical workers, according to officials.
The Louisiana State Police said Vernon Giscombe, 58, was arrested Friday after an officer with the state Department of Public Safety noticed a woman carrying boxes to a car outside the Morial Convention Center.
After growing suspicious, the officer and two LSP troopers stopped the vehicle and discovered two boxes of N95 masks inside. The masks are a vital piece of safety gear that many health care professionals have lacked due to supply shortages during the COVID-19 outbreak.
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Giscombe — who was driving the car — confessed that he took two other boxes of masks earlier in the day, the LSP told FOX8.
He was arrested on suspicion of theft and malfeasance in office, according to FOX8. A spokesperson for state police told the television station that the woman, who has not yet been identified, also worked for the convention center.
Court records obtained by The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, which first reported the arrest, said each box contained 20 masks..
The paper reported Giscombe gave troopers permission to search his home, where they found the two additional boxes.
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According to his LinkedIn page, Giscombe is listed as assistant director of public safety for the convention center and has been employed there since March 2013.
An official in Louisiana has been arrested for stealing several boxes of N95 respirator masks (Reuters)
The sales and marketing vice president of the convention center, Tim Hemphill, said Saturday that Giscombe has been suspended indefinitely in wake of his arrest while officials conduct an internal investigation.
The charges are punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Louisiana is one of the hardest-hit areas of the country as the coronavirus crisis worsens.
State medical officials will open the Morial Convention Center on Monday after it was converted into a medical support facility to help local hospitals care for patients infected with COVID-19.
A temporary hospital has been set up in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, as overflow for local hospitals that are reaching capacity, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
The plan is for the most critical coronavirus patients to remain in hospitals and give those with less severe symptoms but in need of medical care a place to go. Phase one of the operation can house 1,000 patients, with the ability to double that number, if needed.
National Guard personnel walk outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center during a media tour of a temporary hospital that has been set up, as an overflow for local hospitals that are reaching capacity, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
“It’s for the less sick of the sick,” Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer with the Louisiana Department of Health, said Saturday.
“The people that would be on a regular hospital floor will come here, and we’ll provide an appropriate level of care here until they are safe to be discharged home,” he said.
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Kanter told reporters during a tour of the convention center Saturday that the next three weeks are “incredibly critical.”
Part of the facility’s purpose is to also keep COVID-19-positive patients away from the general population. He stressed that the field hospital will not take walk-in’s, according to FOX8.
“It’s also not a shelter. Think of this as another wing of a hospital,” he said. “Patients are going to go in through the ER just like they normally would, and on the back end, if the hospital feels they are appropriate for this setting, they’ll be transferred here.”
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As of Sunday morning, there were at least 312,245 positive cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and at least 8,503 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Louisiana has at least 12,496 cases and 409 deaths.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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