Convention Centers Fill With Beds For COVID-19, Including 500 For Boston's Homeless

For the last five days, workers from Teamsters Local 25 have filled the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center with rows of walls and curtains. Where it was empty a week ago, the floor will now bustle with medical rooms a thousand deep – a new field hospital to care for patients with COVID-19. Raised over the rooms is a blue and yellow flag with the hospital’s name: Boston Hope.

While Teamsters Local 25 is used to building inside Boston's convention center, the union local president, Sean O’Brien, says this project felt different. It was personal.

“When you’re building something like a hospital for victims of coronavirus, it hits home,” O’Brien says. “None of us are excluded from coming down with the virus. You could potentially be building a 1,000-person hospital that you may — or your loved ones may — end up being in, unfortunately.”

The new field hospital is expected to open Friday, and another 250-bed facility in the DCU Center in Worcester is slated to open on Thursday for patients with COVID-19.

Partners HealthCare will be managing Boston Hope, and UMass Memorial Health Care will run the DCU Center site. Both medical partners have been looking for additional providers to help staff the field hospitals.

“We’ll take as many applications as we can get, because we really need the help. If there are nurses out there, especially folks with army field hospital experience, we could really use you,” says Dr. Eric Dickson, the CEO of UMass Memorial.

Mayor Marty Walsh also put out a plea for qualified health professionals to apply to work in the Boston convention center site during a public address on Tuesday.

All the beds at the DCU Center are intended for patients who are sick with the virus but do not require intensive care. The hope is to create space in hospitals in central Massachusetts to care for the most critically ill patients. The Boston facility will serve a similar purpose, although it also has some critical care suites. Half of the 1,000 beds at Boston Hope are set aside for people experiencing homelessness.

That still may not be enough, advocates for the homeless say. There are already hundreds of COVID-positive patients who are homeless, according to Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, and more are receiving positive test results every day.

These patients need a place to safely recover, where they can receive adequate care and be isolated to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading further, says Dr. Josh Barocas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center who also works with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. The last few days have proven difficult, Barocas says, as he and his colleagues have raced to find and prepare enough space to house all these patients.

“Every day is a new challenge. Folks at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless are working through the night,” he says. “We’re literally bracing for storm.”

The other night, Barocas says Dr. Jessie Gaeta, another doctor and chief medical officer at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, personally got into a van and drove people to new sites for patients experiencing homelessness.

“There’s no playbook for any of this. So, we’re taking on whatever role needs to happen. Dr. Gaeta transported patients herself while I was cleaning rooms,” Barocas says.

Barocas says the convention center will help, but health experts believe more COVID-19 cases are likely to be identified in the next few days and weeks. If Boston Hope fills up, providers will be back to looking for more space.