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As hospitals fill, Michigan eyes dorms and hotels for coronavirus patients

Most weekends, the Lexus Velodrome in Detroit is filled with spandex-clad bicycle racers whizzing around its racetrack to the hollers of spectators.

But that was before Michigan and the rest of the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus. 

Now, the 64,000-square-foot dome is empty, along with fitness centers and other businesses that have closed to halt the spread of the contagion. Now, the velodrome has packed up its bikes and is undergoing a top-to-bottom cleaning so it can be ready in case it needs to be filled with hospital beds. 

Dale Hughes, executive director of the velodrome, offered the space to the nearby Detroit Medical Center as the state braces for hospitals to become overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, as has happened in other states and countries.

“Nothing’s been determined, this is just an offer. We’re just trying to be a little proactive,” Hughes said Tuesday, noting that hospital officials told him it’s still determining their needs. “We’re part of the neighborhood, we want to be helpful when we can.”

The velodrome is one of several facilities including universities and hotels that could provide space for patients, first responders and others as the crisis unfolds — including those with COVID-19 who don’t require hospitalization.

The move comes as medical experts warned that Michigan and much of the nation don’t have enough hospital beds to house patients if the surge in infections continues. And it’s unclear whether those who test positive for the virus could be compelled to move into temporary housing to reduce the risk of exposure.

“In the past the health department told you where to go — there were no choices. How this would play out today is up in the air,” Howard Markel, a medical historian with the University of Michigan, told Bridge.

"We are bracing for what is going to be an even tougher situation today, tomorrow and in the days coming.” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday told Detroit radio station WDET that Beaumont Health in southeast Michigan is “almost at capacity right now and we have not seen the worst of it yet. The numbers are going to continue to climb.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the hospital system housed 333 confirmed patients and another 178 were waiting for results. 

“We are bracing for what is going to be an even tougher situation today, tomorrow and in the days coming,” Whitmer said.

Michigan is working on a “strategy for alternate care sites” and “will consider all options,” said Bob Wheaton, a state health spokesman.

Whitmer’s executive order, announced on Monday, closed all non-essential businesses and required the public to stay at home. Included in those “essential” businesses are hotels and motels — but only if they provide housing for “needy individuals” or essential workers or help with “mitigation and containment efforts.”

Hotels around the state have seen occupancy rates as low as 5 percent as casual travel has ground to a halt, said Justin Winslow, president of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. 

The association has also been drafting an “emergency occupation agreement” that could allow the state or hospitals to overtake entire hotels to accommodate overflow, Winslow said.

“There’s a partnership and a willing conversation on both sides,” Winslow said. “The conversations we’ve had to date are along the lines of where do you put isolated patients that need to be kept from COVID and other patients for a variety of reasons and could be kept away from a hospital setting if necessary.”

That could include people who test positive for COVID-19 but don’t have symptoms requiring intensive care or people who have a vulnerable immune system and need to be kept away from infected patients, Winslow said.

The governor’s office didn’t say whether, if it comes to that, patients would have the option to go to a hotel or return to their homes. 

Universities across the state, drained of most students two weeks ago, are also preparing to offer up their space for hospital overflow. 

Oakland University closed dorms Monday and offered the unused rooms — as well as arenas and parking lots on campus — to Beaumont Health and the Oakland County Emergency Management team to use for quarantine, testing or as a mobile hospital, said OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, who formerly worked as the CEO of the University of Michigan health system. 

“Most of our hospitals right now are usually near capacity,” Pescovitz said. Adding the growing number of coronavirus cases, “it’s really a true crisis… we’re thinking about what we can do to help.”

Oakland County is one of the hardest-hit counties so far with 428 confirmed cases and four deaths as of Tuesday afternoon. 

County Executive David Coulter said at a news conference Tuesday the county has reached out to hotels, motels, conference centers and universities to convert unused space into field hospitals. 

“We're going to prepare for a worst-case scenario because that could happen sooner rather than later,” he said. 

Macomb Community College — in Macomb County, where there are 225 confirmed cases and three deaths — also is offering a large sports and expo center that “may be of use in a time of crisis,” said Jeanne Nicol, director of public relations. 

Michigan State University spokesman Emily Guerrant told Bridge it’s “evaluating and planning for” a request from state or local officials to use dorms, arenas or other facilities for patients, but they haven’t yet formally asked. 

There are still roughly 1,000 students living in dorms across campus who plan to remain through the end of the semester.

The University of Michigan and Wayne State University did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. 


Beaumont Health, one of four private health care systems in Michigan testing patients for coronavirus, has been preparing for the possible scenarios of the pandemic in stages, Beaumont CEO John Fox told Bridge.

Beaumont has converted space for routine surgery patients into space for patients with COVID-19. Operating rooms, now mostly unused, can be converted to intensive care units. The system is also looking at setting up tents in hospital parking lots.

For a worst-case scenario, Beaumont leaders have talked with Oakland University about using dormitories, which could be supported by the university’s food services, Fox said, “but that would have to be fairly low acuity patients.”

“They're on standby because nobody knows how big the curve will be. We want to have contingency plans ready,” he said.

Bridge Magazine reporters Robin Erb and Ron French contributed to this report.

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