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How McCormick Place is being transformed into a massive field hospital for COVID-19 patients

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite of the Army Corps of Engineers, overseeing construction of the ‘alternative care facility’ for COVID-19 patients, says first 500 beds will be ready Friday.

He’s a three-star general whose jobs have included building up the Afghan police and armed forces, restoring electricity to war-torn Iraq and helping states recover after devastating hurricanes.

On Thursday, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, was in Chicago at McCormick Place, where he’s in charge of putting up a massive field hospital for COVID-19 patients facing a different kind of catastrophe.

Traveling with his staff microbiologist, Semonite, 62, gave elbow bumps to those in the small group greeting him.

He’s overseeing nine such projects, with many more expected. On Wednesday, he was in Detroit. Then, he flew to Illinois to meet with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a “phenomenal lady,” he said. Thursday morning, he toured McCormick Place before jumping on a small jet to visit another city.

Semonite said he’s prioritizing the Corps’ projects based on the rate of growth of the virus in each city and how many hospital beds are needed.

“At the end of the day, though, the single biggest reason why we would come to Chicago or somewhere else is that governor feels that there’s a very, very critical requirement,” Semonite said.

Pritzker is “very, very focused on being able to try to take care of this town,” Semonite said.

New York was the model for the Corps’ efforts after the Javits convention center was recently converted into a hospital for sick and injured people who aren’t infected with COVID-19. A Navy hospital ship is housing patients sent from Javits.

The Army Corps is building nine such projects across the country with a total of 9,500 beds, according to Semonite, who said he expects to sign contracts in the next two days for another eight projects with 4,000 more beds.

“We’ve looked at almost 600 different facilities,” he said.

About a week ago, Semonite said he was notified by the secretary of the Army that Pritzker was “very, very concerned about the bed shortage up here.”

A division commander, Major Gen. Mark Toy, then met with Pritzker, and construction was launched on the McCormick Place’“alternative care facility,” which is short of a full-blown hospital.

Illinois National Guardsmen with hard hats and personal protective equipment in hand walk to the entrance of McCormick Place on Thursday.
Illinois National Guardsmen, with hard hats and personal protective equipment in hand, walk to the entrance of McCormick Place on Thursday.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Three exhibition halls at the convention center are being converted into medical wings, one of which will have 500 beds ready to use Friday, Semonite said.

Another 2,500 beds will be installed in stages to meet what officials say could be a peak in coronavirus diagnoses in Chicago around mid-April. The buildout is being paid for with $15 million in federal emergency funding.

People with varying degrees of coronavirus complications will be housed in each of the three converted exhibition halls.

The state is in charge of staffing the facility with health-care professionals. Pritzker has said the state is asking for volunteers and hiring people from contracting services. He said enough workers have been hired to staff at least 500 beds.

Officials have said they also were working to create temporary bed capacity at the shuttered MetroSouth Hospital in Blue Island and the Elgin site where Sherman Hospital was before being demolished.

In Chicago, United Center is being used for food distribution, first-responder staging and collecting medical supplies.

Walsh Construction is building the infrastructure for the field hospital at Place.

Illinois National Guard troops are assembling the beds and other equipment.

Members of the Illinois Air National Guard assemble medical equipment at McCormick Place.
Members of the Illinois Air National Guard assemble medical equipment at McCormick Place.
Jay Grabiec / Air Force

Semonite said the project is based on one of four standard designs for retrofitting big spaces like convention centers, vacant hospitals, dorms and sports arenas. Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks play, also is being retrofitted.

The Chicago Sun-Times wasn’t allowed to tour the field hospital inside McCormick Place,, which Semonite described as a series of three-walled pods with a curtain at each opening. The metal-braced walls are the same ones vendors use during trade shows, he said. Each pod has a bed and chair. Nurses’ stations are in the corridors.

Oxygen is being pumped into the field hospital, and engineers in McCormick Place have calibrated the heat and air-conditioning system to provide “negative pressure” that keeps contaminants from escaping, Semonite said.

“I’ve got to admit the staff in some of these big facilities is amazing,” he said. “I met with the leadership of McCormick yesterday. They’re doing a lot of the work.”

Semonite said Walsh Construction is among contractors across the country who’ve been asking to help the Army Corps.

“This is not about trying to make a buck on a contract,” he said. “This is about taking care of the local citizens of this city, of this state, because these are all our people.

“President Trump said a couple of weeks ago, ‘This is when America really needs to rally to be able to come together.’ ”

Semonite said one of his biggest aims is to make it as easy as possible for cities and states to build such field hospitals quickly.

Semonite said the Army Corps’ response to the pandemic in some respects is more difficult than the other big challenges he’s been associated with in his more than 40-year military career, such as rebuilding communities after hurricanes swept through.

“When Mother Nature strikes, and even to a degree in combat operations, you have a pretty good understanding of what the set you’re going to inherit is when a hurricane comes,” he said. “It’s terrifying for 12 to 14 or 24 hours. But the next morning when you wake up, you kind of know what has to be built.

“And we kind of have defined the problem, and then we all attack. We don’t know where this one’s going to end. How long is this going to go? How long do facilities like this have to be run?

“This is an extremely complicated challenge,” he said. “And we are not going to be able to solve this with a complicated solution.”

At a news conference Thursday, Pritzker said he has toured the hospital being built at McCormick Place: “I didn’t know you could build something like that in five days.”

“You should all feel very, very proud of the work that’s been done so quickly,” Pritzker said, calling the carpenters, National Guardsmen and other workers at McCormick Place “patriotic.”

“They know they are doing something that’s going to save people’s lives.”

Contributing: Lynn Sweet