Governments Look to Convert Empty College Dorms Into Temporary Medical Centers

New York University said it is preparing to offer dorms as temporary hospital beds.

New York University said it is preparing to offer dorms as temporary hospital beds. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Faced with an expected shortage of hospital beds, state and local officials believe one solution could be found on college campuses.

College students across the country were told to leave campuses over the past few weeks, as school officials decided the close living quarters are too risky during the coronavirus pandemic. Now government officials are eyeing the thousands of empty beds in college dormitories as a potential solution to growing concerns about limited hospital capacity. 

Leaders in several states say they are working with universities to see if dorms could be temporarily converted into medical centers for those who test positive for coronavirus and need treatment, but are not so acutely ill that they must be in a hospital setting. 

Recent predictions about hospital bed capacity show that even in a moderate scenario—one in which 40% of American adults are infected over the next year—nearly every single hospital region would need to add beds for Covid-19 patients. It is estimated, based on disease modeling systems, that about 5% of Covid-19 patients need to be hospitalized, 2% of patients need to be in an ICU and 1% need to be on ventilators. 

One estimate cited by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York predicted that the state will need anywhere between 55,000 to 110,000 beds during the peak of the virus. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Cuomo wrote that state governments don’t have the ability to quickly build hospitals, a solution implemented in China, where the government erected two facilities in days specifically to deal with the crushing number of patients infected with Covid-19. Instead, Cuomo called on President Trump to tap the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to step in to modify existing buildings. 

“States cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough,” Cuomo wrote on Sunday. “At this point, our best hope is to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities—like military bases or college dormitories—to serve as temporary medical centers. Then we can designate existing hospital beds for the acutely ill.”

New York University sent students an email on Tuesday informing them that the university has an “institutional responsibility” to help in the outbreak response and that could involve using their dorms. "There are significant indications that the State, as part of its contingency planning, is looking at university dormitories as settings for overflow beds from hospitals grappling with a potentially overwhelming number of sick patients," reads the email. “There are other medically-related contingencies for which they are also being eyed.”

NYU Spokesman John Beckman told Route Fifty in an email on Thursday that the university does not yet know “the specifics” of what the state is planning. “There have been no specific requests of the University at this point, but we would want to be in a position to help if needed,” Beckman said. “And as we direct our students to leave the residence halls and return home, it is one of the issues we have let them know about so that they understand the seriousness of the situation in New York City."    

Some universities have already converted portions of their dorms into quarantine spaces for students returning from study abroad in affected countries, potentially giving a preview of what changes might need to be made if the spaces are converted into hospital-like environments. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example, converted all double-occupancy rooms to single-occupancy and plans to bring meals to students from dining services during the duration of their quarantine.

Nick Macchione, the director of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, said that they were actively working with universities to identify dorms that could be used as recovery beds for those who test positive for coronavirus. 

“We need to manage it as widely as we can,” Macchione said Wednesday on a call hosted by the National Association of Counties. 

But in places where universities haven’t yet been officially asked to step up, some colleges are proactively offering their beds should hospitals need them. Officials with Tufts University outside Boston said on Wednesday that it is making hundreds of vacant dorm rooms available to hospitals in the coming weeks. University president Anthony Monaco, writing in an op-ed in the Boston Globe, called on other college administrators to do the same. 

Monaco also outlined other steps that colleges could take to contribute during the crisis, including identifying residential units that can be used for quarantine and dining services that could support them, offering residential units to hospital patients in “non-essential” rehabilitation, establishing triage testing centers in university parking lots and gyms and creating an incident command structure for any medical operation on university property.

Other university officials say they are more bogged down with helping students get home to  begin to seriously plan for the use of their facilities. In Wisconsin, officials at UW-Madison said in a Facebook Live Q&A session with students that they have already been contacted by city and county officials, but that the use of university dorms for hospital overflow patients is “just a hypothetical at this point.” Jeff Novak, director of university housing, said that the first step is ensuring students safely move out. 

"We're getting questions from the Dane County public health officials: Could our facilities, like many of our counterparts' across the country, be used once empty for overflow space if hospitals are running out?” he said. "We want to be able to help if that occurs, and you all are helping through this process. To get out of our residence halls could be the difference if this becomes more of a danger to our community than it already is.”

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Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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