Georgia to wind down makeshift hospital at Atlanta convention center

Officials look over a portion of the 200-bed temporary hospital inside the Georgia World Congress Center that was built for treating coronavirus patients with mild to moderate symptoms. It’s about to go into dormancy. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Officials look over a portion of the 200-bed temporary hospital inside the Georgia World Congress Center that was built for treating coronavirus patients with mild to moderate symptoms. It’s about to go into dormancy. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The makeshift hospital for coronavirus patients built in the Georgia World Congress Center is winding down, as the sprawling Atlanta convention complex finalizes plans to ramp back up.

The 200-bed hospital was erected in April to handle what was expected to be an influx of patients suffering from mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19, though state health officials said 17 patients were treated there through early May. The last of them was discharged late Tuesday.

Frank Poe, the convention center’s executive director, said Wednesday that the hospital will soon go into “mothball status” — dormant but available if needed — through mid-June as the campus welcomes the return of two smaller events. The equipment will be stored by emergency officials and available in case of emergency after that, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said.

Poe briefed state lawmakers this week on efforts to reopen the convention center, outlining dozens of safety precautions to coincide with the plans. He said the campus is pursuing a certification from the International Association of Venue Managers that assesses sanitation, hygiene and employee training.

“It’s a central element to providing a venue where customers can be assured they’re in a safe place,” Poe said. “We’re excited about that path, and it speaks to the importance we’re placing on welcoming customers and employees back into the building.”

The convention center — at the heart of a mini-city that links downtown hotels, State Farm Arena and Mercedes-Benz Stadium — is a major driver of metro Atlanta's economy, with an estimated economic impact that tops $1 billion.

The center's calendar emptied in mid-March as officials began imposing more economic restrictions and businesses canceled travel. Within a span of about two weeks in March, the convention center swung from expecting to net $3.4 million in profit to projecting a loss of $5 million.

Poe said the agency’s finances will be “choppy” through the end of this year, with some events postponing or canceling, and others going forward with fewer participants and a smaller footprint. By next year, he said, convention traffic will hinge on consumer confidence and the availability of vaccines or treatments.

“It’s a slow move forward, and hotels and restaurants and airlines are all doing their part,” he said. “But the consumer has to reach their own decisions about whether they’re ready to travel and venture out. There’s going to be a lot of caution, but we’re hoping by the fourth quarter we’re back on track.”

The agency outlined its plans in a 23-page document delivered to lawmakers this week that detailed plans to install touchless payment options and plexiglass dividers, and implement scaled-back menus to speed food service.

Electrostatic sprayers are being set up to sanitize large rooms, and employees will be screened before entering the complex. Staffers will be retrained on sanitation guidelines and must adhere to social-distancing requirements. And events would be spaced out in cavernous ballrooms to discourage crowding.

The new protocol will get an early test next month when two smaller-scale conventions, expected to bring hundreds of visitors, return to the campus.

Kemp announced construction of the temporary hospital in mid-April as part of Georgia's efforts to prepare for a rush on medical facilities during the pandemic, and records show it cost an estimated $21.5 million. Kemp's office called it a "proactive investment" that could be reused in future emergencies.

The decision to scale back the hospital comes amid less demand for hospital beds for COVID-19 patients across the state. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data showed that hospitalizations for the disease dropped by about one-third across Georgia in the past two weeks.

The decline is significant, but it does not mean that infections are down since Georgia began to reopen at the end of April. There is about a two-week lag between when a person is infected, shows symptoms, is admitted to the hospital, gets tested and receives the results.

State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a member of the legislative committee that oversees the convention center, said he was impressed by the agency's plan and shared it with employees at his Gainesville car dealership.

“It’s going to make the convention center safer and better, and also bring greater efficiencies to the operation as a whole,” he said. “It’s the gold standard.”