Governor John Bel Edwards confirmed at a Thursday press conference that the state will utilize the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center to house hospital patients. The move, he said, was necessary because under the current trajectory of coronavirus infections in the New Orleans area, the region’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by early April. 

“Yes, we are in the process of signing the necessary contracts to stage 1,120 beds at the convention center initially,” Edwards said. “The first 120 beds will be ready by the end of this weekend with the rest coming online the following week.”

Globally, one of the central challenges of the coronavirus has been the healthcare capacity to treat the surge of patients who are catching the virus. Part of that is getting enough ventilators to treat the worst cases. But part of the issue is making enough room in hospitals to even keep the new patients.

Louisiana is now tied for second, with New Jersey, for per-capita infections in the country, Edwards said during the press conference. As of Thursday, the state has confirmed more than 2,300 cases, an increase of 500 from Wednesday. Of those, 676 are in hospital beds, including 239 on ventilators. Orleans Parish accounts for nearly 1,000 of of the cases in the state. 

The latter issue is where the convention center comes in. It’s not exactly clear what types of patients would be transferred from hospitals to the center, but in a Wednesday press conference, Edwards indicated that it would include people recovering from the coronavirus

“One of the ways we can increase the capacity of the hospitals and deliver care to more patients, is when a patient is sufficiently recovered and no longer needs to be in a acute care bed or ICU bed, that we have another place they can go That frees that bed up and makes it available to someone who does need that level of services,” he said.

The state had been negotiating with New Orleans hotels before settling on the convention center. One reason for that choice, Edwards said, is that it is easier to staff and supply one large location rather than several scattered locations. 

On Wednesday, the board of the convention center discussed this possibility during a remote board meeting. Some were worried about what the decision would damage the center’s image.

“The layout of the convention center is near about ideal,” Edwards said on Thursday. “Obviously it’s not an easy call to make, but the projections show that we’re going to need potentially 1000 or more hospital beds by about the 8th, 9th, 10th of April.”

He said the state was “executing the contracts to include the wrap-around services to include staffing for that facility.”

He said that ultimately, staffing would be the biggest hurdle to make this work. He said that the convention center has plenty of space to add more beds, but that the beds won’t do much good if there aren’t healthcare workers to go along with them.

“Now we can move more of these wings, 120 bed wings, into the convention center,” he said. “And we will if we have to. But staffing those beds becomes very very problematic.”

It’s unclear exactly what the plan is to get enough doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. But Edwards gave some ideas at the Wednesday press conference.

“We have contractual relationships with entities outside of Louisiana that we are working on. We are also working with the state medical board … and the nursing board to try and figure out if we can do some things to bring more healthcare professionals online quicker. We are doing things with medical schools. For example, we are trying to get the most recent set of medical school graduates credentialed and licensed sooner.”

Edwards also announced on Thursday that the federal government would be setting up two field hospitals with a 250-bed capacity. The federal government is also sending a 60-person “strike team” of medical workers to house those field hospitals. He said that the locations are still being decided, but that one could be set up at the Convention Center. 

The state is taking other steps to increase hospital capacity in the New Orleans area, he said. He said Ochsner New Orleans was adding 96 new intensive care unit, or ICU, beds and that LCMC Health was adding 70 ICU beds in New Orleans. He said that he also talked to President Donald Trump about having the VA Hospital absorb some of the surge.

Ultimately, he said that due to staffing concerns, Louisiana had to flatten the curve of new infections or even these new beds would be insufficient. 

“We have to have additional surge capacity. It looks like the VA, it looks like the Morial Convention Center, it looks like the 60 person strike team that the US public health service is sending down here,” he said. “But all of that together isn’t enough if we don’t get off of this curve.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...