- Associated Press - Saturday, May 23, 2020

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - In roughly one month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and contractors have turned The Commercial Appeal’s former building at 495 Union Ave. into a 401-bed hospital for COVID-19 patients, and a media tour of the building Monday showed a space that’s massively transformed.

A fourth-floor space that formerly served as an industrial “mail room” for preparing and shipping out newspapers is now a sterile-looking, low-ceilinged vast plain of individual hospital rooms, each with its own cot, IV stand and plugs for various medical functions, including oxygen.

Metal frames, lightweight walls and fabric curtains separate the rooms, and each room is equipped with its own bag of toiletries. This fourth-floor space alone has 254 beds.

Part of the third-floor newsroom has been turned into a space for unusually sick patients. Thirty-three specially designed negative pressure rooms with glass walls aim to keep the contagion from spreading uncontrolled in the area.

Very sick patients who don’t improve quickly would be transferred to other hospitals, said Lt. Col. Nathan Molica, who led the reporters on the tour. The overflow hospital is largely a backup hospital for patients who need support, but aren’t so sick that they need top-level care.



Beds are in other areas of the building as well, including the first floor, which formerly housed the newspaper’s customer service and human resources offices.

Unlike standard hospital rooms, the individual patient spaces are not equipped with bathrooms.

Patients will be able to get up to go to bathrooms nearby, said Dr. Manoj Jain, the infectious disease specialist who is advising the city of Memphis and who has visited the new hospital several times. Jain said that in most cases, COVID-19 patients need oxygen, but are not so debilitated that they can’t move.

In addition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee National Guard and a wide range of contractors worked on the project.

Officials have expressed hope that the hospital will never be used. For now, its 401 hospital beds will sit vacant, ready to serve as overflow space in case the pandemic sends a big wave of patients to area hospitals.

The build-out of the structure is costing $51.3 million in state and federal funding, said Jim Pogue, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s not including other costs, including furniture, equipment and medical staffing.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured the building Monday (May 18) and addressed journalists outside. “What this is, is a representation of how a community can come together in the midst of a crisis and integrate, cooperate, coordinate and execute,” Lee said. “That’s exactly what’s happened and that’s what this building, in the form that it now stands, represents, an incredible amount of partnership and coordination.”

Many speakers came to the podium and noted the extremely fast time frame for construction.

Molica, who led reporters on a tour, said the contract for the project was finalized April 16, barely a month ago. (A plaque commemorating the project gave a slightly different start date, April 15.)

Officials have said hundreds of people have worked on the project seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Workers were still doing cleanup and putting finishing touches on the building on Monday, including hanging a sign that read “Tennessee Alternate Care Site Memphis.”

Other signs in the building read “Hot Zone,” “Cold Zone” and “Warm Zone” and aim to remind workers of infection control precautions as they enter various areas.

Some remnants of the building’s former purpose remain, including one of the building’s old printing presses.

Patients and supplies will be transported among the building’s floors by freight elevators. One elevator is labeled on hospital diagrams as “clean,” the other as “dirty.” The “dirty” elevator will transport sick patients and items such as dirty linen, the other will transport fresh supplies.

A massive oxygen tank system has been constructed outside the building. And one part of the building has been rebuilt to allow ambulances to drive in.The tour experience was disorienting for reporters in the group who had formerly worked in the building. Spaces where they worked for years are now completely changed and unfamiliar.

The Commercial Appeal left the space at 495 Union Ave. in May 2019 and now occupies a smaller office on South Main.

An investment group called Twenty Lake Holdings now owns the building - its main office is in Connecticut and in Tennessee it operates as 495 Union Avenue LLC. The state of Tennessee had agreed to pay Twenty Lake Holdings a monthly lease sum of $70,000, plus utilities and other expenses.

The contract runs until at least April 20, 2021, and can be extended for another six months.

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