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Suburban Collection Showplace ready to admit COVID-19 patients

Neal Rubin and Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Novi — In a space whose April bookings once included a building materials auction and a gun and knife show, 250 beds stood ready Monday for COVID-19 patients.

A 15-day construction project that included putting down a concrete pad and putting up overhead sanitation pipes turned the exposition hall at the Suburban Collection Showplace into a field hospital that could see its first action by the end of the week.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District is finishing up the conversion of Suburban Collection Showplace into a field hospital.

Karrie Kratz, vice president of the Gilbane Building Co., called the project "amazingly collaborative," with effort and expertise from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan National Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"It was the only way to get this done," she said.

The facility was scaled back from 1,100 beds five days into the build-out as local hospitals ramped up their coronavirus capacity and fewer than two dozen patients moved into the area's first field hospital at TCF Center in Detroit.

Beaumont Health and the Henry Ford Health System reported decreasing numbers of coronavirus admissions last week, while the University of Michigan tabled a plan to place 500 beds in an indoor track building.

At Suburban Collection Showplace, gray curtains hung in front of 10-by-10-foot white cubicles set atop a gray slab floor. Each cubicle held a basic tan metal bed, assembled by National Guard members, with a blue mattress.

Esther Johnson, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit Office, talks about the functionality of a patient's room.

"We're working with donors to maybe bring some homeyness into it," said Esther Johnson, who's stationed in Detroit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The field hospital is using 250,000 square feet of floor space in a hall of slightly more than 300,000. Beds can be added quickly if needed, Johnson said.

Engineering challenges included laying a base substantial enough to hold a 9,000-gallon, 30-feet-tall tank of liquid oxygen and a 4,800-gallon reserve tank. With no drainage system in place for 250 beds, a 50-seat employee cafeteria and five patient showers, workers also had to rig piping to whisk gray water to the local sewer system.

An official from Gilbane, which is based in Rhode Island but has an office in Detroit, said negotiations are not complete on a final cost for the project, but the fee for TCF was $9.5 million.

The 1,000-bed unit downtown is primarily staffed by military medical personnel, while the Ascension health care system will fill positions in Novi.

Stephanie Corona, project executive for Gilbane, makes labels for signs in the hospital.

Patients will be sick enough to require hospitalization, but not so ill they are on ventilators.

Johnson said the template for the hospital was developed by experts within the corps of engineers well ahead of the need.

Ordinarily, she said, she manages projects related to Great Lakes navigation. Her last emergency assignment came in 2017 after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, when she handled quality assurance for temporary roofing.

While that might sound far more difficult, she said, "every job has its challenges."