04/07/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - The exterior of the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. State officials are quietly preparing to establish three large emergency hospitals across Georgia, including one at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, as they race to open more beds ahead of an expected surge in coronavirus cases. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Georgia to convert Atlanta convention center to temporary hospital

The state will convert a part of the Georgia World Congress Center into a 200-bed hospital to handle an influx of coronavirus patients, Gov. Brian Kemp said Sunday.

The governor said the Georgia National Guard and state health and emergency officials will work with PAE, a private contractor, to transform the downtown Atlanta facility into an emergency hospital. 

The sprawling complex will be used to treat coronavirus patients experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of the disease, Kemp said, while patients who need ventilators or require more intense care will be sent to hospitals. 

“We are working around the clock to prepare for future needs and ensure the health and well-being of our state,” said the governor. 

Kemp announced last week that four new mobile medical units and expansions at two hospitals will add nearly 300 hospital beds to Georgia’s inventory.

But more capacity is needed as Georgia prepares for an April 26 projected peak date amid a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of residents and sickened thousands more. 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that state officials were quietly preparing to establish large emergency facilities at the World Congress Center as well as two other locations in Macon and Savannah. 

The preparations underscore the seriousness of the pandemic as Georgia races to find enough hospital beds for a growing number of patients.

Dr. Carlos del Rio said the state is performing better in recent days than some of the modeling suggested, a sign that severe social distancing is helping Georgia avoid exponential growth of the disease. 

“Instead of seeing one day 10 patients, and the next day 20, and the next day 40, and the next day 80, we are seeing one day 10, the next 12, and the next 14, and the next day 16,” he said. “That makes a huge difference.”

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, listens as Gov. Brian Kemp answers a question during a news conference Wednesday. Kemp extended a shelter-at-home order to deal with the coronavirus pandemic through the rest of April. Ben@BenGray.com for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Still, del Rio said he couldn’t predict what Georgia’s apex might look like as hospitals scramble to prepare staff, beds and equipment for an increase in cases. 

“It’s a matter of waiting for a hurricane to hit you,” he said. “It might hit you with a Category 4, it might hit you with a tropical storm.” 

Across the nation, convention centers accustomed to hosting mega-conferences and big-ticket affairs have already been transformed into emergency rooms and other medical spaces.

In New York’s Javits Center, the glass-walled event hall has become a hive of activity for health care workers, and visitors at an entry desk are screened by a soldier armed with questions — and a drone with infrared sensors scanning for temperatures.

The Santa Clara Convention Center in California was remade in the past week by Air National Guard troops into a 250-bed medical facility in the heart of Silicon Valley. And construction crews in BaltimoreBoston and Los Angeles put up temporary walls and laid down lines of beds for the ill.

In New Orleans, health officials are racing to put as many as 1,100 beds in the Morial Convention Center to ease the strain on local hospitals, evoking memories of the chaotic scene from 2005 when tens of thousands were forced to use the facility as a refuge when Hurricane Katrina breached the levees.

And the McCormick Place Convention Center in downtown Chicago — the largest facility of its kind in North America — is being transformed into a 3,000-bed hospital over the next few weeks for patients with mild symptoms of the disease.

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