Army Corps of Engineers Converts Javits Center into a Hospital
Matthew Greenwood posted on April 27, 2020 |
Convention center can treat thousands of COVID-19 patients.

Under normal circumstances, the Jacob K. Javits Center would have hosted conventions such as the New York Auto Show this month. But instead, it’s been hosting patients in the fight against COVID-19.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), spearheaded the efforts to convert the convention center into a hospital, working with more than 15 government agencies—from the military to the facility’s carpenters. They deployed 1,000 beds within the first week, and the total quickly rose to 4,000 beds after that. And while the new field hospital was originally intended to treat non-coronavirus patients, freeing up existing hospital staff and equipment to take on the coronavirus itself, its mission quickly changed—and it turned to treat COVID-19 patients exclusively. Colonel Dennis Deeley leads a unified National Guard-led command post at the facility.

The Javits Center is ideally suited for use as a makeshift hospital. Typically used for large-scale conventions, it has 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space and a modular configuration with detachable wall partitions to accommodate large groups as easily as smaller spaces for caregivers. It also has connection points for plumbing and electricity every 10 feet—and the building can support the massive levels of electrical power a hospital needs to operate. Its loading docks also facilitate the easy movement of people and supplies in and out, under such a highly controlled environment.

The beds are distributed in clusters of usually 16 rooms, in two lines of eight rooms back to back. Each room consists of white walls and a curtain, and contain a foldout chair, lighting, a side table, a power outlet and medical equipment—even a potted plant.

The facility’s existing ventilation and filtration systems only needed minor adjustments to serve the makeshift hospital’s needs—a particular concern as COVID-19 is a respiratory illness transmitted by air. To make sure the air in areas where coronavirus patients were being treated doesn’t leak into the outside air, engineers adapted the ventilation system to create negative-pressure rooms that keep the virus from escaping whenever doors are opened.

Security is, understandably, tight: only two of the center’s 225 entrances are being used, and all visitors need to undergo thorough screening and must wear protective equipment.

The military has also deployed drones with infrared sensors to remotely take peoples’ temperatures, alerting staff to anyone with a fever and allowing doctors to respond quickly.

The temporary hospital also includes a pharmacy in a concession stand and nursing stations—all built from scratch. And it features 50 mobile showers.

Converting the Javits Center into a hospital.

The USACE has standard designs for converting a variety of facilities into field hospitals—sports arenas, convention centers, dorms and hotels. Those designs are constantly adapted to fit the realities on the ground, and the priorities of local officials.

“Any time you have a standard design, we want to continue to learn,” said Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the USACE. “We have continued to see where our engineers who are actually doing this construction are being pretty innovative in how we site adapt that standard design to give more capability back out to the great doctors and nurses who are going to be taking care of these patients out there.”

It’s not the first time the center has been used for emergency response, having served as a command center for FEMA after the 9/11 attacks and hosting some relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But this is the first time it’s been used as a hospital space.

The corps has done an astounding transformation of a convention center into a much-needed medical facility. And it’s not the only one the USACE has converted during the pandemic—the corps is assessing and converting sites into field hospitals around the country.

The success in turning the Javits Center into a hospital paves the way for future opportunities to use convention centers as emergency facilities during other crises. The USACE anticipates that, going forward, new convention centers and stadiums will incorporate pandemic planning in their designs. These facilities offer capacity and efficiencies that health care providers need to be able to look after many patients at once in an emergency.

The Javits Center hosting an auto trade show, under more normal circumstances.
The Javits Center hosting an auto trade show, under more normal circumstances.

It’s also a testament to the versatility, ingenuity and hard work of the Corps, which has been responding to natural disasters and other emergencies since shortly after the Civil War.

“I want to give a shout-out to my team, 36,000 unbelievable Corps of Engineers,” said Semonite. These guys are working 18 hours a day… and they're in every single kind of facility. And there's nothing too small for us to look at, whether it's 100 beds or 3,000 beds, we're just as passionate about doing this.”

Read more about how the USACE is contributing to the fight against the pandemic at Army Corps of Engineers Scramble to Evaluate Alternate Hospital Sites for COVID-19.

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