US Army Corps of Engineers Plans to Turn McCormick Place Into a 3,000-Bed Hospital

The move is latest preparation for what could be a dramatic rise in cases not just in Chicago but across the county and state

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said plans have already been drafted for a 3,000-bed COVID-19 hospital utilizing halls A, B, and C at McCormick Place set to open on April 24.

Speaking at the Pentagon, General Todd Semonite said McCormick Place was among 114 sites the Corps of Engineers examined in all 50 states. Semonite said the proposed conversion of the Chicago convention center would house patients in varying degrees of illness.

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker's warning about Illinois' supply of hospital beds, NBC 5 Investigates analyzed federal and state healthcare data to see which counties have the greatest number of beds -- both Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds and regular beds -- per capita -- and which have the fewest. NBC 5 Investigates' Katie Kim has the story.

The price tag he says he was given for operations in Illinois was $75 million.

"This is really outside the box," he said. "We've never done a pandemic capability."

Semonite said the proposed McCormick Place hospital would utilize a system where the air pressure inside the building is lowered, allowing air to flow into the treatment units but not outward, to prevent contaminated air from escaping.

"The ability to do negative pressure in a hotel room is pretty easy," he said. "But when you go into a giant voluminous room like a convention center, to try and bring the pressure down, we didn't think it was attainable."

But Semonite said a solution was found.

Hall C at the convention center, he said, would be configured to house 500 "low acute" patients. Hall C would be set up for 500 more, but at a higher level of illness. Hall B would be used to house the critically ill patients.

"In C and A, we're bringing the pressure down in the entire convention center, it's going to be lower pressure, it keeps the containment in," he said. "But in hall B, what they've asked us to do, is to get some type of a module, that we could set inside there."

With the number of patients the facility would house, the proposal paints a chilling picture of the direction officials fear the outbreak in Chicago may be headed.

"The total there is somewhere on the magnitude of 3,000 that are going to go into the Chicago McCormick Convention Center," he said. "And we want to write those contracts and get that in. Our goal is to have that one done somewhere around the 24th of April."

While Chicago officials have alluded to the possibility of utilizing McCormick Place to treat patients, the Pentagon assessment was the most detailed outline of what may come to pass.

"And this is the main message you need to know---all Covid," Semonite said. "They've made a decision that in that facility, everybody that goes in there that is going to be staff, will be 100% PPE (personal protective equipment)."

The general stressed that the Corps makes a priority of building what is possible in any time frame they are given.

"We have a very very narrow window of opportunity," he said. "If we don't leverage that opportunity, we're going to miss it."

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