Whitmer: Detroit's TCF Center to get 900 beds for hospital overflow

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Fresh off the cancellation of the first summer Detroit auto show, the TCF Center is moving closer to instead house overflow patients from hospitals during the coronavirus crisis.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will supply the former Cobo Center in Detroit with about 900 additional hospital beds. The corps’ Detroit District also will continue to conduct “initial and in-depth site assessments” through the state to address other potential shortages. There likely will be other alternate sites retrofitted in Detroit and out state.

"The State of Michigan is working around the clock and doing everything we can to slow the spread of the coronavirus," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. "We are proud to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and the TCF Center to expand capacity in Detroit. By mobilizing quickly to construct a large alternate care facility in Detroit, we can help save lives."        

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, will retrofit the TCF Center to add 900 hospital beds to help with overflow from hospitals nearing capacity because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The corps will adapt more than 250,000 square feet of the center on two separate floors for the additional hospitals beds and medical personnel stations, according to a statement. Patients will be divided between the two floors based on severity.

A contract between the corps and a construction contractor should be in place Monday and construction activities will take place soon after, the corps said in a statement. 

"We are proud to work hand in hand with our partners at FEMA and the state of Michigan and leverage our engineering expertise to help save lives," said Lt. Col. Gregory Turner, USACE's Detroit district engineer.

Construction at the center will be done by TCF Center employees and union labor in "the most efficient way possible in order to allow the convention center to resume normal operations in the weeks ahead when this crisis eases," the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority said in a statement. The authority is working to reschedule events with customers.

"TCF Center is fully prepared to do its part in supporting our residents and community," the authority and center said in a statement Sunday. "We stand in awe of the tireless and dedicated healthcare workers and first responders who are true heroes of our time."

The announcement comes a day after the North American International Auto Show announced its June event at the convention center had been cancelled and delayed to 2021.

"We were certainly aware that FEMA has been talking with a whole host of other sites around the country — primarily convention-type centers — so we knew this was a possibility," NAIAS chairman Doug North said Saturday. "It didn’t become a complete reality until Saturday. It’s not a shock FEMA would want to get in here. We need to get this thing stopped as quickly as we can."

This year's event was scheduled for June 7-20 at the TCF Center and at nearby outside venues such as Hart Plaza. The show had traditionally been held in January but was moved to the summer to be more consumer-focused.

The announcement is another blow to Detroit's restaurant and hotel industries that already were reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown. The Detroit auto show draws thousands of visitors from around the globe to the downtown, infusing the regional economy with hundreds of millions of dollars. The next show will not be held until June 11, 2021; that's 866 days after the last show in January 2019.

"We’re hoping that this pandemic will be gone, and we can have a great show," North said. "All our partners and stakeholders were really excited. Up until the last few days, we were getting calls from companies and individuals that wanted to get involved."

The Detroit District is working under FEMA at the direction of the state to assess a list of potential alternate care facilities that Whitmer’s office has prepared. The Army Corps was also assessing the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center and two Wayne State University dormitories in Detroit.

Michigan has roughly 27,000 hospital beds state wide, according to state data, but more than 18,000 were in use for illnesses other than COVID-19, according to a March 2 inventory. Updated numbers on statewide bed availability were not immediately available.

Hospitals have reported to the state that they had 1,622 ventilators available as of March 26.

A study published Thursday by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at University of Washington Medicine estimates Michigan hospitals will hit peak COVID-19 demand April 8 and will be about 10,563 beds short of what will be needed that day. 

The study estimated Michigan would 1,785 ventilators that day.

As of Sunday afternoon, Michigan had 5,486 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 132 deaths. A majority of the cases have been located in the Southeast Michigan counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. 

Southeast Michigan health systems, some of the biggest systems in the state, have reported they are nearing capacity. 

The state this week told hospitals it would start shifting some patients from Detroit-area hospitals to out state hospitals to balance the load across hospitals. 

Hospitals outside of southeast Michigan will serve as relief hospitals and will be required to offer 10% of their usual bed capacity to accept patients from other hospitals nearing capacity.