It was Saturday March 28 and the COVID-19 crisis was evolving rapidly in Illinois.
Two weeks earlier, the World Health Organization had declared the new COVID-19 virus a worldwide pandemic. Cases outside China were soaring. Iran and Italy were being devastated by the death tolls. Infections in New York jumped from 424 on March 16 to 7,195 on March 28.
Illinois had announced 467 new COVID cases on the 28th, centered in Chicago. Governor J.B. Pritzker and other officials were planning for the worst, including a backup-care facility to handle an expected surge in cases. Pritzker had already closed state schools and all nonessential businesses.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had responded to the governor's request for help. McCormick Place was one of a couple of dozen sites nationwide, including New York City's Javits Center, designated as potential alternative care facilities (ACFs).
At 5 o'clock on March 28 Chicago-based Walsh Construction was invited by the Metropolitan Pier Exposition Authority under the direction of the Army Corps to bid on converting three big exhibition halls of McCormick Place into a 3,000-bed COVID-19 facility. The emergency project deadline was 26 days.
By 8:30 a.m. the next day Walsh submitted a proposal. It was accepted in two hours and, an hour later, 50 Walsh employees were on site at McCormick Place with the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We responded quickly to a valued customer in the Corps of Engineers and had the depth of resources to meet the demands of the project," says Dan Walsh, who along with his brother Matthew are co-chairmen of Walsh Construction and long-time clients of William Blair. "The Corps selected us for the country's biggest acute-care facility and the one with the fastest schedule."
Walsh healthcare operations manager Tony Galullo recalls that Sunday morning at McCormick Place after the proposal was accepted.
"When we walked in at 11:30 with all our own personal protective equipment, it set the tone right out of the gate," Galullo says. "The impression was we were ready to go, which helped define the mission we were on."
First 500 beds in 5 days
By April 3, just five days after construction began, the first 500 beds at the McCormick Place ACF were ready.
"Monumental, round-the-clock dedication got this done before we need it, preparing for saving lives in the event things become as bad as some have predicted," Pritzker said at the time. "In one week's time, the heroes who came together to make this possible built us a facility larger than the largest hospital in Illinois."
By April 10 another 1,750 beds were ready for use and by April 23 another 500, with the enhanced support space and medical infrastructure completed for any needed buildout to 3,000 beds all completed in 25 days.
Tom Caplis, vice president of Walsh's healthcare group, says logistics, worker safety, and securing supplies for the buildout were challenging. Besides the Corps, Walsh personnel worked with hundreds of Illinois National Guard, city and state workers, and specialty contractors around the clock to transform North America's largest convention center into one the country's largest ACFs.
"This was very much a civic pride mission the government gave us to make something happen for this city that we live in and work in," Caplis said. "People just laced up their boots, put on their hard hats, didn't complain and went to work."
Galullo, a 25-year employee of Walsh who was in charge of operations for the project, says the actual construction work to retool McCormick Place was complex but relatively normal.
"What was not typical was the extraordinary pace of the project, the speed of delivery," Galullo says. "We were designing, finding materials, building all in real time."
A model for the world
Amid a nationwide COVID panic, sourcing materials for the work wasn't easy. Galullo said many fabricators and distributors of basic construction materials nationally were closed or had limited capacity amid their governors' stay-at-home orders. It meant paring up with the right specialty contractors.
"Here was the government and private industry coming together very quickly, efficiently building something that we needed, doing something to help the situation, which seemed so out of control," Caplis says. "That mindset carried through to everyone on the jobsite."
The halls at McCormick were reshaped to handle patients with varying levels of illness.
Hall C was the first to open for low-acuity patients. It provided 500 tri-walled, 10' x 10' patient spaces with a curtain front, furnished with beds and basic healthcare items. The unit also included 14 nursing stations, medical storage facilities, a pharmacy, and housekeeping services.
Hall A was transformed next for 1,750 patients and 41 nursing stations, with open-space care for fully mobile, low-acuity COVID patients. The final phase was Hall B, aimed to care for a maximum of 750 patients exhibiting high transmission symptoms. The unit was fitted with negative-pressure isolation tents for each patient, including a sophisticated HEPA filter system to purify the air of contagious bacteria and viruses.
"This whole Hall B has become the model for the country and actually the world now," says Caplis, citing a new rack system of 15 patient isolations pods that can be packaged in sets of 15 then shipped and reassembled anywhere in the country or the world.
Caplis says the Hall B materials were a good example of how efficient the private-public partnership was in the high-pressure project. The negative pressure tents were tracked down to a supplier in Eugene, Oregon. But it would have taken at least three days to arrive cross-country by truck.
"In a period of an hour after bringing it up to the governor, we had birds dedicated to us and a delivery date at Midway Airport," Caplis said of two C-130 military transports Pritzker dispatched from the Illinois National Guard in Peoria for an overnight delivery to Midway.
The light-speed project also demanded new challenges for all the on-site workers.
Extra health precautions were put in place to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19. These included social distancing, working together to stay 6 feet apart; face coverings; temperature checks; wristbands for everybody entering the job site each day.
Caplis noted that over 25 days of construction, thousands of man hours were logged without a single accident and not one person was affected by COVID which he called "absolutely remarkable."
"Our incredible employees and in-house healthcare expertise allowed us to be able to contribute to the efforts of what happened at McCormick Place," says Brian Walsh, a fourth-generation member of the founding family now with the company.
"This project was taken on at a time when the city needed to come together and Walsh was really proud to be part of that effort."
Note: At the time of this writing, McCormick Place remains available as an alternative care facility for COVID-19 patients.