Coronavirus Coming and No Beds? Consider Your Local High School

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

A woman walks on the Columbia University campus, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New York. The Ivy League school is canceling two days of classes this week because a person at the New York school is under quarantine from the rapidly spreading coronavirus, according to university president Lee Bollinger. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

South Korea has “bent the curve!” It is the only country to have decreased the rate at which the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is spreading. Meanwhile, the number of cases in the United States continues to skyrocket exponentially. We are now approaching 150,000 cases and lead the world.

According to a University of Washington study, COVID-19 is expected to peak in mid-April. In light of this, President Trump has requested that Americans extend social distancing until April 30. But this study is merely an estimate. Reality could be quite different with the actual peak extending into early May or later.

Like Hurricane Katrina heading for New Orleans, the coronavirus storm is coming right at us. Its full fury and devastation have just begun to hit the shore of New York City. But its storm bands, with a sprinkling of cases, extends across America. In New York City, demand for hospital beds has already exceeded supply. More hospitals are needed right now. In response, large cities have followed NYC and have begun converting convention centers to hospitals. But, what can smaller towns and cities do which do not possess such facilities?

Consider your local high school. Could this be the answer for some?

The typical hospital requires 2,500 square feet per bed. This includes all hospital spaces, not just the actual space allocated to the patient’s room. Thus, 120 hospitals are about 300,000 square feet in size. High schools are often this size or larger. They are in every community and usually locally owned and operated. But they are now empty with no competing demand for their space. School will not resume until the coronavirus storm has passed.

Consider the many attributes that high schools have from the outside in. First, the outside. They are usually strategically located and therefore have easy access. Some are even located close to hospitals. Usually, there is plenty of parking on campus. Thus, getting ambulances in and out should not be difficult. Pre-existing loading docks would facilitate the delivery of medical supplies. The schools already have the large trash containers for removing garbage from the site. Security systems are already in place and upgraded since the school shootings which have occurred in our country.

Now consider their insides. Many aspects of their layout and design would facilitate their conversion from a school to a temporary hospital. There are numerous types of rooms already built into them.

For example, they already have administrative offices, meeting rooms, and break rooms that the staff could use as-is. Their chemistry lab could serve as a foundation to set up a medical lab. They have multiple bathrooms throughout the school. Changing rooms and showers are available at the gym. The school kitchen could provide food for the patients and staff. The classrooms could be converted into patient rooms. Others could be used for staff sleeping rooms.

Their corridors are wide, making the transport of patients easier and placement of large medical equipment possible. The school lockers in the hallways could provide spaces for staff or others to secure personal belongings. When a large space is needed, the school auditorium or gym could be used. For example, the gym could be used to process patients into the facility. The auditorium could be used for training or press conferences. The post office room, if available and secure, might be large enough to be converted into a pharmacy.

Other components that would be beneficial include the staffing and building systems already in place. The medical team could use the school’s current staffing for the kitchen, cleaning, and maintenance. A communication system is already in place throughout the facility. A fire-alarm and fire-suppressant system is also present.

Every idea is a good idea when your back is against the wall. The coronavirus is overwhelming our health care system. Our backs are against the wall. Hospitals are very complex buildings. But 80 percent of what is needed in them is already present in many high school buildings.

Although every temporary arrangement has its own short comings, a team well-versed in logistics could make it work. Any temporary hospital facility will have to deal with various challenges such as ventilation, oxygen supply, vacuum lines, and power for monitoring systems. High schools are not unique in this regard.

What is South Korea doing to “bend the curve?” Can we do the same? If not, we need more hospitals, ASAP! For some communities, high schools could be an immediate solution to overburdened hospitals.

Dr. Richard Dolinar, M.D., ([email protected]) is a clinical endocrinologist based in Phoenix and a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Joseph Dolinar ([email protected]) is an architect based in Chicago.

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