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Memphis COVID-19 overflow hospital closes without ever seeing a patient

Published: Jul. 20, 2021 at 5:58 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The $51.3 million COVID-19 overflow hospital in Memphis has closed permanently.

The former Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue was converted into a field hospital last year to relieve pressure on area hospitals in the event they became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

But it never saw a single patient. Another field hospital in Nashville also remained empty.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee says that’s a good thing.

“When early predictions pointed to a worst-case scenario of every state exceeding its COVID-19 patient capacity, we took immediate action in Tennessee to address the potential shortfall,” Lee said. “Tennessee’s alternate care sites provided our healthcare system with a margin of safety, and thankfully we did not need to open either site.”

In the spring of 2020, as pandemic infections were rising rapidly across the Mid-South, state officials became concerned about the ability of hospitals to deal with the influx of patients.

In April 2020, Tennessee received a Major Disaster Declaration. It made federal funding available for COVID-19 response measures, including alternate care sites for COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Scott Strome, the executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine, says that’s when state leaders called with a request he never imagined he’d hear.

“The state called and said ‘would you help us build a field hospital?’ I must say I didn’t exactly know what that entailed, but our answer was yes,” said Strome.

More than $51 million was poured into turning the former Commercial Appeal building on into a 400-bed COVID-19 alternative care site.

“We thought we were going to face a bed capacity challenge. What we ended up facing was largely a personnel capacity challenge, particularly as our frontline workers got ill with COVID,” said Strome.

But at $51.3 million, many call it a waste of money.

Dr. Strome disagrees.

“That’s easy to say, you know in July, August of 2021,” Strome said. “It’s much more difficult to make that call when the state made that call. It was, in my opinion, the right thing to do, and I’m glad we didn’t need it.”

Tennessee is eligible to receive a reimbursement from the federal government for the cost of building and maintaining this field hospital. The state has turned the building back over to its owners.

Strome says the partnerships that developed from building the hospital will be beneficial.

“We’ve established really close ties with the city and with the county, as well as with the state, and some of those city ties are bearing fruit in ways that you might not otherwise think of,” said Strome.

He cited a neighborhood health program that UTHSC is working on with the City of Memphis as one example.

All medical equipment and supplies assigned to the field hospital have been returned to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) warehouse to be inventoried.

“The Memphis and Nashville sites are models of what the public and private sector can accomplish working together,” TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan said. “We’ll use this success in planning for other emergencies that may impact our healthcare system.”

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