Emergency COVID-19 hospital in Memphis closes without ever treating a patient

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A planned emergency overflow hospital for COVID-19 patients in Memphis has been decommissioned without ever being used, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said this week.

The hospital was located in the 125,000-square-foot building at 495 Union Ave. formerly occupied by The Commercial Appeal newspaper offices. The building was renovated to make bed space for 402 COVID-19 patients.

It opened June 9, 2020, at a cost of $51 million, according to TEMA. But it was never used, and the state began moving equipment out in May.

“It was an opportune time for us to go ahead and start demobilizing,” said Patrick Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, which built the hospital and dismantled it. “We were looking to create a really a pressure relief valve should some of the worst case forecast for COVID come true, and the only time we came close there was in December of 2020.”

The state’s lease on the building runs until Sept. 30. After that it will be turned back over to its owner.

A smaller hospital in Nashville has also been deconstructed and the medical supplies returned to TEMA.

The facilities were built after Tennessee received a Major Disaster Declaration that made federal funding
available for COVID-19 response measures in April 2020.

“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,”
Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “Tennessee’s alternate care sites provided our health care system with a margin of safety, and thankfully we did not need to open either site.”

Dr. Manoj Jain, a member of Shelby County’s COVID-19 Task Force, said opening the facility was the right thing to do.

“Having it in our back pocket was essential. It was really important,” Jain said. “It brought a tremendous amount of security to me, as a doctor, knowing that my patients would have somewhere to go in case the present hospitals just didn’t have the capacity.”

Even though cases are rising, Jain said things have changed since the first days of COVID.

“What we know is that the number of cases are not relating to the number of hospitalizations because many are vaccinated. And if they do get the variant they don’t get as infected so I’m fairly certain that we will not need that facility any longer, and I’m very comfortable with it closing,” Jain said.

But Dr. Jeff Warren, also on the COVID Task Force, thinks the closing is premature.

“If you look at the numbers from four weeks ago, which is when they probably made the decision to close it, as they were looking at things, it looked good then. But if you look at the numbers from the last 10 days they’re very different. We’re just now seeing the delta variant hit our community,” Warren said.

Tennessee reported 994 new cases of coronavirus on Monday. The increasing numbers followed a decline in June that some days saw fewer than 100 new reported cases in the state.

Shelby County saw 158 reported cases Monday, after reaching a low of 20 new cases in mid-June.

Doctors at UT Health Science Center were slated to head the medical staff at the overflow facility, a job they never got to do.

“We were always prepared to staff it, given a specific ramp-up time which probably would have been about 10 days to begin to move patients in,” said Dr. Scott Strome, Dean of the College of Medicine at UTHSC.

As for those who may say it was a waste of a $51 million grant, Strome said it’s easy to make those calls in hindsight.

“It’s not easy to make those calls when you really don’t know the size and scope of the virus,” he said.

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