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Hospital, police plan for Paradiso Festival at the Gorge

Fans watch the action during May 2013’s Sasquatch Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash. (Associated Press)
Fans watch the action during May 2013’s Sasquatch Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash. (Associated Press)
Wilson Criscione The Spokesman-Review

The Paradiso electronic music festival is coming to the Gorge Amphitheatre for the third year, and like other festivals it is expected to strain Grant County’s ability to help with the surge of concertgoers suffering from dehydration and drug overdoses.

Last year, the two-day event brought more than 25,000 people to the Gorge, with more than 70 ending up in the Quincy Valley Medical Center. A hospital spokeswoman said at the time that at least 40 of those in the hospital had problems related to drugs or alcohol. One 21-year-old attendee died from dehydration and methamphetamine use.

The hospital has 25 beds and three emergency room spots and struggles to handle the increase in patients during festivals. What’s more, many of the concertgoers can’t pay their medical bills. Last year, the hospital absorbed about $400,000 in unpaid bills from the concert patients.

Administrators plan to double staffing for Paradiso – something they have become accustomed to with the increase in festivals at the Gorge in recent years, according to hospital spokeswoman Michele Wurl.

Although the Grant County Sheriff’s Office said in the wake of last year’s death that they had no plans to increase security for future festivals, they’ve reconsidered their stance. Sgt. Kieth Siebert said the department will have up to eight undercover officers in the venue looking for synthetic drugs such as MDMA, or “Molly,” bath salts and meth. They will focus their efforts specifically on drug sellers.

Siebert said the undercover officers, part of a multi-jurisdiction drug unit, were at this year’s Sasquatch music festival in May, though there will be more officers at Paradiso. The Sheriff’s Office also is providing training for concert promoter Live Nation’s security staff at Live Nation’s request.

Preventing deaths like the one last year is difficult, Siebert said, as concertgoers are going to do drugs, and it is easy to hide small amounts in a crowd of thousands of people.

“They’re a younger crowd, more energetic, and they seem to be less inhibited when it comes to drug usage,” Siebert said.

Wurl said the hospital begins preparing for festivals like Sasquatch and Paradiso as early as January. For Paradiso, the hospital will expand into the acute-care and post-surgical areas to add eight emergency room beds, she said.

Sasquatch brought in 54 patients, a relatively low number compared to past years, which is the result of the festival being shortened from four days to three days this year.

The hospital attempted to discuss the issue with Live Nation last year but was referred to lawyers, Wurl said.

State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, is proposing a $1 surcharge on tickets at the Gorge that would help pay for emergency services on concert weekends.

The money would be split between the hospital district and fire district, and Manweller said it would offset some of the money the hospital lost last year.

He said Live Nation has told county commissioners that promoters won’t oppose the bill, which is in draft form. Part of the $1 surcharge also would go toward Live Nation’s administration costs associated with transferring the money to the county.

Manweller added that he doesn’t believe Live Nation is responsible for the actions of the concertgoers.

If the bill passes, he said the fire district and local hospital will be able to better meet the needs of concertgoers.

“It seems like a pretty simple solution to a problem that was serious for a small community,” Manweller said.

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