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Prison facilities, schools and unused hospital buildings targeted as possible critical care units

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scouting out old school and hospital buildings in Maryland, even an unused prison, looking for additional spaces where the state could add thousands of critical care beds during the new coronavirus outbreak.

The Corps is touring sites identified by state officials to see whether they would make suitable places to treat patients and help the state meet a goal of adding 6,000 hospital beds needed to accommodate an anticipated surge of patients with serious cases of the respiratory illness

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The goal is to retrofit the buildings in the style of intensive-care units with nurses’ stations and isolated spaces, as well as negative pressure rooms that help block the transmission of germs. Once the Corps identifies a suitable building, it will be up to Maryland officials to bring in supplies and staff it.

Sarah Lazo, a spokeswoman for the Corps’ Baltimore district, said the Defense Department agency examines the facilities to see whether they have the square footage needed for beds and isolation, enough electrical output, backup generators and sufficient plumbing. They also inspect them for asbestos.

“We provide that information to the state for it to make an informed decision about how to use that space,” Lazo said. “It is up to the state, along with partner agencies, to staff the facilities and make them operational and get the supplies.”

Maryland has more than 400 confirmed cases of the virus so far and four people have died. Far more people are believed to be infected.

A massive field hospital is in the works inside the Baltimore Convention Center and the adjacent city-owed Hilton Hotel. The Corps is now helping move the project forward by performing a site assessment.

The federal government is expected to deliver 250 beds for that site, which will be run jointly by the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Hospital with help from medics from the National Guard. Eventually, the makeshift hospital could have room for as many as 750 people.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that the state had made 2,400 beds available so far, putting officials ahead of schedule.

Some of the beds will be added in hospital wings and alcoves, outdoors in climate-controlled tents, by reopening shuttered hospitals or in newly constructed spaces. Many of the beds are available because hospitals have canceled surgeries and moved some patients and their procedures to outpatient facilities.

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Lazo said the state gave the Corps seven sites to inspect. One is a vacant Jessup prison with a fenced-in yard where temporary facilities could go. Another is an unoccupied building at a Hagerstown correctional facility with an available yard.

Other locations include available hospital space at the Spring Grove Hospital Center and Springfield Hospital Center. It also is looking at school sites in Columbia, Frederick and Parkville.

The Corps’ work is still early, Lazo said. The mission falls under an assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and also involves providing a standard, simple design to enable the state to produce extra health care sites as quickly and easily as possible.

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