Chattanooga Convention Center to become temporary medical center for COVID-19 patients

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Chattanooga Convention Center, as seen on Friday, April 3, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga's Convention Center, empty for the past three weeks because all conventions and meetings were canceled due to the coronavirus, is being converted into a temporary hospital to house those with COVID-19 who need non-acute medical care.

The 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall in downtown Chattanooga will become a medical treatment facility within the next three weeks, with 350 hospital beds.

The Chattanooga convention complex is one of four such facilities being set up for emergency care in each of Tennessee's major cities. Collectively, the new facilities will provide an additional 7,000 beds to help cope with the expected surge in those infected with the virus and free up beds in standard hospitals for more acute care for COVID-19-infected people.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who authorized plans for the temporary facilities along with issuing a stay-at-home executive order on Thursday, said Friday the state is looking for other properties to add even more hospital bed capacity once the number of people infected with the virus reaches its peak in the coming weeks.

"We have a tremendous challenge ahead of us as Tennesseans," Lee said. "We want to expand the capacity of our health care system all across the state so that we can meet the needs of the surge that we all know is coming. We don't know exactly what that surge will be or exactly the time that surge will occur, but we do know it is coming and we want to do what we can to be ready for it."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday approved Tennessee's COVID-19 major disaster declaration to accelerate the work by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to set up the non-acute alternative medical facilities.

The Music City Center in downtown Nashville will be transformed from one of the state's biggest convention facilities into a temporary non-acute hospital with 1,600 beds.

The Knoxville Expo Center is being set up as a similar temporary healthcare facility with 350 beds in downtown Knoxville.

In Memphis, the Corps will be constructing a facility at the vacant Gateway Shopping Center. TEMA said "additional sites in Memphis are being actively assessed to ensure capacity in this hotspot is built up quickly and efficiently."

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee Governor Bill Lee held a press briefing at the UTC University Center concerning the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, April 3, 2020.

Lee said the current models for the spread of the COVID-19 virus project the need for about 7,000 more hospital beds than are now available across the the state for treatment of the respiratory disease. But the state is trying to prepare for an even bigger surge in the number of virus-afflicted patients needing hospital care, should the coronavirus spread more quickly than now forecast.

"We are also looking for other sites to add additional capacity," Lee said. "There are not many facilities that are set up for a quick turnaround."

In the revamped facilities, the heating and air conditioning systems must be changed to provide for negative air pressure rooms to ensure the airborne virus is not spread outside where the infected patients are housed. Oxygen piping and other specialized facilities also must be installed, Lee said. But the state has waived some of the traditional rules and regulatons for hospital beds to expedite the addition of the temporary treatment facilities.

Mike Shuford, executive director for the Carter Street Corp., which runs the Chattanooga Convention Center, said disaster response personnel from the Corps of Engineers and TEMA began assessing the convention center on Tuesday.

"We're happy to help out to meet this need since all of the events we had scheduled in our facilities have been canceled," he said. "They will basically be taking over the whole building, but most of the area they are focusing on is in the open areas in our exhibit halls."

Shuford said the last event at the Chattanooga Convention Center was in mid-March and all of the meetings and conventions originally planned at the facility have been canceled for April.

"We have a few events still on the calendar for May, but I doubt very seriously if they will still happen," he said.

Shuford said the center had kept its core staff in place until Friday, but 27 of its full-time staff were to be laid off, effective Friday. Only a handful of employees remain at the convention center, which is now closed and locked down.

The Civil Works division of the Army Corps of Engineers, which builds and maintains locks and dams on inland waterways like the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, is refocusing its work now to set up the new medical facilities.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.