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Some cities opening up coronavirus surge facilities; others shutting them down unused

Some local governments scrapped plans and closed facilities down unused.

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A makeshift hospital in New York
A makeshift hospital at the Javits Center in New York City
(Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty)
Updated: April 18, 2020 - 11:55am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Numerous municipalities across the country are transforming public facilities into receiving grounds for an anticipated surge in coronavirus patients, looking to turn convention centers, parks and warehouses into makeshift hospitals and morgues ahead of a possible influx of sick residents. 

The scramble for adequate patient capacity comes even as cities in multiple states have scrapped plans for emergency medical facilities, shutting down field hospitals and pivoting away from building new ones as the expected crush of COVID-19 patients fails to materialized. 

In Earth City, Missouri, on the outskirts of St. Louis, several local counties spent a combined $2 million putting together what they called a "Dignified Transfer Center," a refitted warehouse meant to house a total of 1,300 bodies should the need arise. The 29,000 square-foot facility includes limited space for family members to be able to pay their respects to deceased loved ones by appointment. 

Local authorities project peak hospitalization in the St. Louis area as occurring later this month. The Missouri government's official tally indicates that infections statewide may have peaked on or around April 7. Missouri has seen 165 deaths so far from the coronavirus, the majority of them occurring in St. Louis County and in the city. 

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is undertaking a major emergency project at the city's Walter E. Washington Convention Center, outfitting it to house up to 1,500 coronavirus patients if the hospitals there become overwhelmed. 

The field hospital would be designed to accept less-critical coronavirus patients, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference on Friday, leaving established hospital facilities with more space to deal with severe infections. The district reports around 2,700 infections and a total of 91 lives lost as of Friday. 

Some facilities shuttered for lack of patients

Multiple cities and regional governments across the country have for the last few months been undertaking similar projects meant to cushion the blow of a brutal COVID-19 surge, yet in a number of cases the projects have been shuttered, or else abandoned before they even began, due to the low number of coronavirus infections versus what was expected. 

In Richmond, Virginia, this week, health officials announced they were scrapping plans to turn the city's convention center into a makeshift hospital. Hospitals in the area, like most throughout the country, began cancelling elective surgeries and nonessential appointments weeks ago in preparation for an overwhelming influx of coronavirus patients.

Yet so far health facilities have remained largely stable. Only about a quarter of the state's ventilators have been used as of this week. An infection model out of the University of Virginia this week predicts that the state's infection rate will peak in August, though the influential "Murray Model" from the University of Washington estimates peak resource use as early as next week. 

In Seattle earlier this month, meanwhile, the U.S. Army's emergency field hospital, erected in the city's CenturyLink Field, closed down just three days after opening, without having seen a single patient. That facility, which housed 250 beds, was meant to accommodate non-COVID-19 patients to relieve hospitals of that burden. 

Even in New York City, the hardest-hit region of the United States, the city's Javits Center---a convention center in Manhattan that has been converted into a major surge facility---has seen most of its 1,000 beds remain empty. The city has begun transferring medical staff out of that largely unused facility into the more stressed hospitals in the area. 

The naval hospital ship USNS Comfort, meanwhile---which arrived in New York late last month with 1,000 beds meant to relieve the pressure on the local healthcare system---has also largely gone unused.