A new role for Baltimore Convention Center — makeshift hospital

Gov. Larry Hogan is briefed by the Maryland National Guard on efforts to convert part of the Baltimore Convention Center to hospital space to respond to the coronavirus epidemic. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

Gov. Larry Hogan is briefed by the Maryland National Guard on efforts to convert part of the Baltimore Convention Center to hospital space to respond to the coronavirus epidemic. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

Maryland’s National Guard has begun work to convert a portion of Baltimore’s Convention Center into a makeshift hospital as the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to overwhelm Maryland’s health care system.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, standing in front of Humvees on the convention center floor, were briefed by National Guard officers and emergency management personnel at the convention center Tuesday. The conversion of the center is part of Maryland’s so-called surge response plan launched to deal with the pandemic’s spread in Maryland.

“I’m anxious to see it get done. I obviously want to see it done yesterday,” Hogan said regarding efforts to transform the convention center into a field hospital. “But I know you’re working as fast as you can.”

The number of documented infections in Maryland surged from three infections on March 5 to 85 cases of the illness by March 18 ballooning to 349 documented instances of the disease by Tuesday. So far four people in Maryland have died from the new coronavirus. The biggest cluster of infections are located around the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which have 170 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.

Currently there’s not a definite projection as to how widely the disease will spread in Maryland, Hogan said. While he meets daily with members of the state’s coronavirus response team, which includes experts building various models, Hogan said the total number of residents expected to contract the virus in a state with a roughly 6 million population changes day to day.

“The honest answer is nobody has an exact answer to that question. A lot of it depends on the surge and the how successful we are dampening down (the outbreak),” he said.

In recent weeks the governor has issued executive orders banning gatherings of more than 10 people and closing non-essential businesses in a bid to limit the virus’s spread. Residents have also been urged to remain at home and avoid contact with other people, a practice called “social distancing.”

Based on the disease’s progression in China, Italy and Iran as well as states like New York and Washington, the outbreak is expected to strain Maryland’s health care system. Currently experts expect Maryland will need to expand available hospital bed capacity by 70%, or about 6,000 beds, to meet the demand created by COVID-19.

Transforming Baltimore’s Convention Center into a field hospital by April decreases the number of needed slots by roughly 1,200-1,400 beds. Maryland will also reopen the old Laurel Regional Hospital adding about 900 to the state’s total of available beds.

Floor plans for the use of the convention center on display showed places for 11 nurses stations surrounded by patient pods, which are tent- like isolation units intended to cut down on viral transmission.

The floor where the makeshift treatment center is currently slated is 300,000 square feet in size. The National Guard plans to convert 122,000 square feet of space into a treatment area, which leaves the potential to add more beds if necessary.

Housing operations in the convention center allows for in-house meal preparation, provides existing telecommunications connections and operating utilities needed to power a medical facility.

“There are places around the country where they are looking at tents for field hospitals. This is certainly a much better scenario …,” Hogan said. “It’s not exactly being in a hospital, but it sure is close.”

The governor, however, acknowledged that whether the convention center succeeds as a makeshift hospital depends on the availability of medical supplies, such as ventilators needed to keep severely ill people alive. Currently those are in short supply.

“That’s a huge, huge issue that we’re also, all of the governors are pushing very hard, all of the hospitals are working hard on. Our team is pushing both (Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). We’re also pushing on the private sector… We’re working on it from every angle,” Hogan said.

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