Construction begins on field hospital at Baltimore Convention Center to house recovering COVID-19 patients

The Maryland National Guard began setting up a field hospital at the Baltimore Convention Center Saturday as part of an effort to expand the state’s hospital capacity in response to the new coronavirus pandemic.

About 100 members of the state’s National Guard began unloading the first round of supplies, which included cots and tables, into the facility that is planned to house at least 250 beds for patients recovering from COVID-19. Officials hope to have the makeshift medical center open by April 24.


The aid can’t come soon enough. As of Saturday, more than 1,000 people in Maryland had tested positive for the virus, a 28% increase since Friday, and at least 226 had been hospitalized. Ten people in Maryland have died as a result of the viral infection, which attacks the respiratory system.

Jim Ficke, the director of what is being called Joint Hopkins Maryland Federal Medical Station, said doctors will offer acute care at the facility for people who have been infected with COVID-19 but are stable enough to leave permanent hospitals.


A limited supply of ventilators will be available but only on a contingency basis, Ficke said. In an emergency, a patient could be revived and placed on a ventilator, but those patients would then be transferred back to either Johns Hopkins Medicine or University of Maryland Medical System hospitals, which are jointly running the field medicine center.

The convention center facility is expected to have limited X-ray machines, pharmacy support and lab testing, although it won’t be a coronavirus testing site, officials said.

Officials are in the process of recruiting staff for the center, which will not be manned by existing providers from Hopkins and UMMS who will remain in the hospitals where they already work, said Ficke, who is also director of orthopaedic surgery for Johns Hopkins.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing the 250 beds for the convention center, which is part of the state’s effort to vastly expand available hospital bed space to accommodate people suffering from coronavirus.

This week, Maryland was declared a major disaster area by the federal government as a result of the outbreak, and Gov. Larry Hogan has set a goal of adding 6,000 hospital beds statewide in response to the pandemic.

About 100,000 square feet of the 1.2 million-square-foot convention center will be dedicated to the hospital, which is designed in accordance with federal guidelines and then adapted for the convention center’s unique space, said Chuck Callahan, the facility’s deputy director and vice president of population health at University of Maryland Medical Center.

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A similar facility with 1,000 beds spread over 760,000 square feet has been set up at the Javits Center in New York City, which has become an epicenter for infection from the virus. Maryland officials have said they may increase the footprint of the Baltimore center to 300,000 square feet and 750 beds as the virus spreads.

The city-owned Hilton Hotel adjacent to the convention center, also is slated to be used as part of the field hospital. Maryland already has freed up 900 more beds at hospitals statewide that are immediately available. Another 1,400 beds should be ready by early April.


The state also is reopening the closed Laurel Regional Hospital, which would be able to accommodate 135 patients.

Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead, commander of the Maryland National Guard, said the guard will continue to assist with additional setup needed for the medical center as more supplies arrive, although it will not staff the facility.

“COVID is our adversary, and we’re here to fight and win,” she said.

Ficke and Callahan, the pair teamed to run the center, also have military experience. Before they worked for Baltimore’s competing medical systems, both served in the U.S. Army veterans in Iraq — Ficke running a 248-bed combat support hospital and Callahan managing the medical system across Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

“We also knew each other in the Army, so we’re very fortunate to be working together from both sides of town,” Callahan said. “Now we both belong to Baltimore."