Gateway Shopping Center to house temporary hospital as city braces for COVID-19 surge

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 03, 2020 1:25 PM CT | Published: April 02, 2020 3:14 PM CT

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will build a temporary hospital of non-acute beds at Gateway Shopping Center to help deal with the expected coming surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday, April 2.

Lee’s announcement came several hours after local officials announced they were planning a site or possibly several sites for 1,000 new hospital beds. The announcement from the city was expected Friday.

Gateway Shopping Center is at 3230 Jackson Ave.

City chief operating officer Doug McGowen said Thursday at least 1,000 beds are needed, possibly all under one roof or at several sites.

Since the beds at Gateway and any other locations that might be announced are not acute care beds, they could be used for something other than COVID-19 to reserve existing beds in local hospitals for those with the virus.

“Our team is on the ground right now out in the community examining several sites that might be suitable for the need,” McGowen said during a briefing by Zoom teleconference that included questions from the press.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

The Memphis Convention Center was been ruled out because of ongoing renovation work underway at the Downtown facility.

He also addressed speculation about the 20,000-seat FedExForum arena being used as a site, saying there are some barriers to such a conversion.

FedExForum considered for hospital overflow

“What we need is a very large open space. If you think about FedExForum, the majority of that is taken up with seating,” McGowen said. “We do have an open floor. It’s not quite large enough to accommodate the number of beds we would need there. It’s not just the physical space but the layout to make it as easy and efficient as possible.”

Other sites could include the Fairgrounds, which has lots of open space. The Tiger Lane tailgating area of the Fairgrounds is being used for a drive-thru testing center by the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center. The history of the Fairgrounds includes serving as a refugee camp for the region during the record 1927 and 1937 flooding of the Mississippi River.

But it appeared from McGowen’s comments that the city is looking for an existing facility for the temporary hospital. He mentioned considering warehouses, arenas and vacant storefronts.

The plans for the temporary medical facility or facilities will include a call for medical volunteers to work there.

Meanwhile, Dr. Manoj Jain, an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UTHSC working as an adviser to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, offered some ballpark numbers on hospital capacity and what could happen to that capacity locally based on the current number of cases.

<strong>Manoj Jain</strong>

Manoj Jain

But Jain cautioned that the modeling and other estimates that are to become more precise probably over the weekend are “predictive.”

“It doesn’t mean that is what is going to happen,” he said. “What will happen is what you and I begin to do, and when you and I begin to recognize it will have the potential of making a difference in our city.”

At the briefing, Jain and McGowen each cited social distancing behavior and practices, as well as testing, as key factors in the variables determining whether the beds are needed.

There is no shortage of regular hospital beds, ICU beds or ventilators locally at present. More precise numbers of COVID patients hospitalized at one time are forthcoming by Friday or Saturday. But Jain said there are now the first indications of a surge for local hospitals.

Thousands, not hundreds, should be tested daily for COVID-19, expert says

“I would say in the range of 50 to 60 beds or more for COVID positive cases in the metro Memphis area,” Jain estimated of the number of those currently hospitalized in the Memphis area.

“But there are a higher number of patients who are symptomatic but may potentially have (COVID) who are in the hospital,” he said. “Of the patients who are in the hospital with potential COVID and those who are COVID positive, about half of those are in the intensive care unit and a percentage of those are on a ventilator.”

Jain said there are no specific numbers or estimates yet on how many could die in the metro Memphis area. But he compared the possibilities to 250 deaths from flu in the metro Memphis area a year.

City braces for surge; will announce hospital site

“What we are looking at with (COVID) is a factor greater,” he said. “It could be five or 10 times greater the numbers of deaths we could potentially be looking at.”

But Jain emphasized that factor is controllable and can be changed by social distancing.

“It is us, we, who can dictate how high that peak will be as well as the duration of that peak,” he said.

The caveat is similar to those about how rapid modeling and its predictions can change from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been a daily presence in White House briefings on COVID-19.

Jain said the effectiveness of social distancing also isn’t immediately apparent. It shows up two to three weeks later in many cases.

“The infections happen today, then they turn into an ICU admission or an illness that requires more care two to three weeks down the line,” he said.

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


coronavirus Dr. Manoj Jain Doug McGowen COVID-19 Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District Gateway Shopping Center

Bill Dries on demand

Never miss an article. Sign up to receive Bill Dries' stories as they’re published.

Enter your e-mail address

Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


Reading comments and joining the conversation are some of the many benefits of subscribing. Join the conversation by clicking the View Comments button below. Not a subscriber? Click here. 

Our commenting policy can be viewed here