COVID-19 field hospital conversion underway on Union Avenue

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 26, 2020 3:50 PM CT | Published: April 24, 2020 12:50 PM CT

On May 16, when the former site of The Commercial Appeal opens as an alternate-care facility for COVID-19 patients, those who require intensive care will be housed on the third floor, in what used to be the sunlit newsroom.

An army of people – some 500 – are working in shifts around the clock to turn the old newspaper building into a hospital large enough to accommodate 404 patients.

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“The project is about 26% finished,” said Jim Pogue, spokesman for the Corps’ Memphis district. “A tremendous amount of drywall is going up. It’s a beehive of activity. It is really something to see.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of converting 32 buildings and arenas across the nation into emergency hospitals in anticipation of surges in the coronavirus pandemic. In Memphis, which will have the only field facility in the state, the Corps is renovating all five floors of the newspaper building.

Friday, workers were building a ramp on the southeast corner for a drive-up patient delivery area off Beale Street where trucks would load papers and head off in every direction late at night. An enormous crane was lifting an air-handling unit up to the roof to cool the building and produce negative air flow to keep inside air from re-circulating.

“There will be a pharmacy. There is a provision made for the delivery of food and the delivery and exchange of linens, everything you would see in a real hospital,” Pogue said.

The work includes installation of portable toilets, shower facilities and patient care areas in addition to temporary offices for medical and administrative staff. It also requires minor remodeling to interior walls and ceilings, electrical and plumbing systems, plus fire sprinkler and HVAC systems, according to the building permit pulled this week.

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The contractor is W.G. Yates and Sons Construction, a national firm with offices in Memphis.

“The Corps’ part of this puzzle is the site. We will give the city a site that is ready to go. It’s up to them and the state to then supply the beds, all the accouterments that go into it,” Pogue said.

“The analogy I heard the other day is if you took the finished Commercial Appeal building, pick it up and turn it upside down, anything that falls out, we are not responsible for that.”

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The hospital will be run by three physicians from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, including Dr. Regan Williams, trauma medical director at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of surgery and pediatrics.

She will be the chief medical officer. Dr. Richard Walker, interim chair of emergency medicine at Regional One, is CEO. Dr. Terri Stewart, nursing instructor, is the chief nursing officer.

“We will only be managing low-acuity patients, not the sickest of the sick but the ones that still need care and are filling up the hospitals,” Williams said. “We really want them to be able to do what they do best, which is managing really sick patients.”

The hospital includes six ICU beds for patients who get sicker and need that level of care before they are transported back to the hospital they came from.

Each patient will be in three-walled cubicle with a curtain across the front.

“We will be working on the staffing with Shelby County Health Department and the Tennessee Medical Reserve Corps. They’ve been really diligent in the last two to three weeks getting people signed up and vetted and getting the numbers to us on what they have,” Williams said.

UTHSC leaders say the hospital could be open for months, including through a second surge, if it happens.

“We are monitoring the situation with the state health department and Shelby County Health Department, looking at the number of cases and hospital beds and working on a formula so we have lead time. If it looks like we are going to be needed, we will open a few weeks early to get staffed and get everyone trained,” she said.

As of late Thursday, 59% of the surge capacity hospital beds (3,192) in the county were in use, and 46% of the ICU surge capacity beds were full (726). 

Nationally, the Corps is building space that can hold 14,808 beds in 16 states and the District of Columbia. The vast majority of the capacity will be in 20 sporting arenas that are to be converted to makeshift hospitals.

The Commercial Appeal site is one of 12 buildings around the nation being converted. Combined, those spaces are expected to provide 2,458 beds. Of the 32 projects, 13 are complete.

The budget for the all the conversions is $1.7 billion, according to the Corps. The Corps and U.S. Army deployed 1,638 people to the mass-scale projects, and they’re supported by 15,000 others.

The cost of the Memphis project is unclear, Pogue said.

“We are working to determine how to give you a figure that makes sense because we are using some special contracting tools to get a fast running start on this.”

Williams, who was asked several weeks ago by UTHSC leaders to lead, is amazed at how fast the plans have come together.

“One day we were over there and nothing had happened. Then the contracts were signed, and the next day, 200 people were at work. It has been amazing.”

One of the people she won’t forget is the Corps hospital designer who was here working on it while both his parents were sick with COVID, hundreds of miles way.

“He said, ‘This is very personal to me, and I am going to build you a very nice hospital.’”

While she hopes the facility wont’ have to be used, it’s being finished because state leaders are concerned about how the disease affects African Americans and obese people.

“Those things make everyone really nervous, and we want to make sure we have hospital beds for everyone who needs them.”



495 Union COVID-19 field hospital
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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