Alternate-Care COVID-19 Hospital Construction Complete, UTHSC Poised to Manage Operations

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Dr. Richard Walker, CEO of the city’s new alternate-care hospital for COVID-19, left, and College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD, center, show UT President Randy Boyd through the facility prior to Monday’s transfer ceremony.

Richard Walker, MD, chair of emergency medicine and director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, watched Monday as the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers handed off the newly completed alternate-care hospital in the former Commercial Appeal Building on Union Avenue to state and local leaders for use to treat COVID-19 patients if the need arises.

Dr. Walker, who will serve as the chief executive officer for the facility, described the action as “a milestone” in the local and state response to the pandemic.

“In my mind, we’ve gone from being aware and unprepared to being aware and prepared as best we can be as a community,” Dr. Walker said.

The 401-bed hospital in the old newspaper building at 495 Union Avenue will be used if the number of those infected exceeds available hospital beds in the region. It is designed for less-acute-care COVID-19 patients, those who are ill or recovering and might need oxygen but do not need the higher-level care that hospitals can provide. The alternate-care hospital is intended to ease the burden on hospitals in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

UTHSC will manage the operation of the hospital. UT President Randy Boyd and UTHSC administrative leadership, including Chancellor Steve Schwab, MD, and Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operations Officer Ken Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, FACHE, attended the ceremony.

UTHSC College of Nursing Instructor Terri Stewart, MSN, RN, a nurse for more than 42 years with extensive experience in executive nursing leadership and practice in acute-care settings, is the chief nursing officer. Regan Williams, MD, associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at UTHSC and medical director of trauma at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, was instrumental during the planning process for the hospital.

Stewart, who has been setting up the patient rooms and working on staffing, said she is honored to be part of the operation. “It just, to me, shows the importance of nursing in health care,” she said.

The building, one of 37 alternate-care hospitals commissioned across the country by the federal government, represents 140,000 square feet of space for medical care across five stories. In addition to spaces equipped to provide care for non-acute patients, there are 33 acute isolation units for patients whose condition may  require transfer back to a medical facility. The transformation from newspaper production facility to hospital occurred over roughly one month with 65 companies involved and represents the only such conversion of a former commercial facility into a hospital.

Governor Bill Lee was in Memphis for the transfer ceremony. He said the project represents the successful collaboration among national, state, and local entities that has marked Tennessee’s response to the pandemic.

Governor Bill Lee, left, received a plaque from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers marking the completion of the building conversion.

“Multiple partners have come together to make this happen here,” the governor said. “It is a representation of how a community can come together in the midst of a crisis. This building represents an incredible amount of partnership.”

The building carries an 18-month lease, is fully outfitted for care, and staffing is underway. It will not be put into operation, unless the caseload demands. However, the renovation was done so that it can be used by the city and county in future emergency situations.

“We hope we will never have to use this resource, this building, for COVID-19,” Gov. Lee said. “But we also know this building can be used for other things in the future and we’re proud of the fact that so many came together to make this happen.”