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COVID-19 – Chicago McCormick Place Convention Center: Alternate Care Facility – Chicago stands up a 3,000-bed alternate care facility and begins treating COVID patients in 30-days

Written by Angelette M. Evans, DBA
Assistant Professor, Health Administration, Governors State University
ACHE-Chicago Health Executive Forum, Communications Board Director

 Building the plane as we’re flying it.” (Tom Caplis, VP & Business Group Leader, Walsh Group)…

This sounds impossible, but this quote represents the speed and ingenuity needed to respond to the global COVID-19 pandemic.  On July 23, the Chicago Health Executives Forum hosted a CHEF Talks Webinar entitled COVID-19 – Chicago McCormick Place Convention Center: Alternate Care Facility; Chicago stands up a 3,000-bed alternate care facility and begins treating COVID patients in 30 days.  The webinar, moderated by Georgia Casciato, FACHE (Managing Director-Healthcare, Syntegrity, an RTI Company), was a comprehensive discussion on how the State of Illinois, City of Chicago, United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and local and regional healthcare providers collaborated on the planning, execution, and operations of one of the largest alternate care sites designed to care for low-to-moderate acuity COVID-19 affected patients.  The project was  funded in part by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

What is an alternate care site?  Per the USACE an “Alternate Care Site (ACS) is a “facility that’s temporarily converted for healthcare use during a public health emergency to reduce the burden on hospitals and established medical facilities”.  In late 2019 concerns arose about a novel corona virus (COVID-19) that was rapidly spreading through Asia (more specifically China).  By January 14,  2020, the Epidemiology Division of the Chicago Department of Public Health (ED-CDPH) predicted an outbreak in Chicago.  By January 19, 2020, the Chicago O’Hare International Airport established its quarantine operations; the following day the first person under investigation (PUI) was identified.  Subsequently, this case was confirmed as COVID-19.  In early February, all acute care hospitals were put on notice to watch for cases symptomatic for COVID-19 (Christopher Shields, Assistant Commissioner, CDPH).

The ED-CDPH utilized BlueDot (outbreak risk software), NBIC (Homeland Security Department’s National Biosurveillance Integration Center), Johns Hopkins University of Medicine,  and Health Workforce Sentinel Network to inform the Chicago Unified Command, which ultimately established housing, treatment, quarantine, acute care, and personal protective equipment needs and options.  Within the month of March, the United States (US) case count grew from 603 cases to 161,807; at this rate, it was predicted that the US major metropolitan areas would be inadequately prepared to handle this case rate growth within one month.  In response to this outbreak concern, it was apparent that the COVID-19 virus would overwhelm the Chicago academic and community hospitals’ capacity.  The USACE was enlisted to help develop a streamlined and fast solution to counter the emerging crisis.  The ACS concept followed New York’s request for government support in decompressing the surmounting demand for healthcare services.  An ACS tool kit was developed to convert hotels, dorms, sports arenas, and (as for Chicago) convention centers into temporary COVID-19 care centers for low to mid-acuity cases.  Consequentially, Illinois State and Chicago leadership felt the need to build an ACS within one month at the McCormick Place.

Per Col. Aaron W. Reisinger of the USACE Chicago District his team had the necessary experience to execute a Chicago based ACS initiative.  Based on the USACE competencies and capabilities they were able to convert the Chicago McCormick Place Convention Center into an ACS within one month (a central location within the heart of Chicago: 2301 S King Dr, Chicago, IL 60616).  Through the collaborative and cooperative engagement of multiple entities, the McCormick Place was successfully converted into a 2750 bed ACS in record time.  The McCormick Place ACS accepted the first patient on April 14, 2020.  This initiative involved converting three of the McCormick Place halls (A, B, and C) into patient care sites, equating to just under 1.5 million square feet.  In addition to the buildout they were able to recruit and contract an executive team and train clinical staff under the advisement of Dr. Paul Merrick (DuPage Medical Group).  Hall A and C were prepared for sub-acute patients and Hall B was designated for acute care cases as needed.  The executives recruited to lead this initiative included ex-CEO of Advocate Arora Health, Dr. Nick Turkal as the Executive Director and Martin Judd as the Chief Operating Officer.

Because of the State of Illinois and Chicago leadership’s diligent communication and enforcement of social distancing and stay at home recommendations; in addition, the Chicago hospitals’ ability to surge to accommodate additional patients, Chicago avoided the worst-case scenario.  Accordingly, the full capacity of the 2750-bed ACS center was not needed (Hall B-acute care was not used).  However, the fact that the magnitude of the McCormick Place ACS was achieved and operationalized within one-month proved that through collective and centralized coordination; along with shared values and urgency Chicago has the assurance that it can respond to public health crisis.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has not retreated; we have recently seen an increase in cases and positivity rates within many states; including an uptick in Illinois.  The silver lining is that the State of Illinois has the competencies and experience to manage the demand of a pandemic surge; in addition, the USACE has the experience to support other states in our union through the current and future COVID-19 progression.  Because of Chicago’s experience with the development of the McCormick Place ACS, we have the benefit of lessons learned.

The contributors to this online seminar was delivered by:
David Bucaro – Chief Project Manager, USACE, Chicago District
Thomas Caplis – VP & Business Group Leader, Walsh Group
Martin Judd – COO, McCormick Place ACS
Dr. Paul Merrick – Co-CEO, DuPage Medical Group & Clinical Advisor McCormick Place ACS
Col. Aaron W. Reisinger – Chicago District Commander, USACE

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