NEW ORLEANS — Preparations are underway at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to quickly turn the massive hall into an emergency field hospital, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Friday at his afternoon coronavirus briefing.
Edwards said the joint federal-state effort has already been launched and will begin with the installation of about 240 cot-like hospital beds this weekend.
Edwards warned that at the state’s current rate of new infections requiring hospitalization, local hospital capacity may be exceeded sometime next week.
Under that worst-case scenario, patients will be moved to one of two wings at the convention center, each housing about 120 beds.
There was minimal activity outside the convention center Friday, but addressing the build-out, Edwards said work has already begun in earnest behind-the-scenes.
“That facility, in fact they're working there today,” Edwards said at his press briefing. “And they're going to build this out in rooms of 120 rooms each.”
The full contract to outfit the convention center is a much larger operation and will be constructed in phases.
“The contract will require that they put up 1,120 beds in the convention center,” Edwards said. “Then we will staff that facility primarily through a staffing contract that we are executing here at GOHSE (Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness).”
The last time the convention hall was used in an emergency was during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The center, one of the largest in the country, was initially a makeshift shelter for about 20,000 people after Katrina’s levee breaches flooded the city.
The shelter operation after Katrina was unplanned, but became necessary after the Superdome – designated at the time as the city’s shelter of last resort – was overrun.
The convention center’s next phase during Katrina went much more smoothly, as the vast open-air hall was quickly transformed into an emergency field hospital. At the time, the space was desperately needed with the city’s largest hospital, Charity, flooded and unusable.
With the pandemic, the convention center would be used after Covid-19 patients no longer need to be in an intensive care setting inside a regular hospital, Edwards said.
Edwards said staffing of the field hospital will be done under another emergency contract to bring in extra medical workers, including some nurses from out-of-state who can quickly be certified in Louisiana.