200-bed surge hospital nears opening in Atlanta exhibit hall

Bartow County reported two more deaths from the coronavirus Thursday, bringing the total to 22 with 240 total cases.

Despite 12 counties in Georgia reporting more total cases, Bartow County has the fifth-most virus-related deaths in the state.

Cases in Georgia are now up to 16,368, with 617 deaths and 3,260 hospitalizations.

With Georgia officials still believing the state's hospitalization peak from COVID-19 is in the future, they're close to opening a 200-bed facility in a downtown Atlanta convention center.

Crews have built rows of white cubicles, each 10 feet square, atop a bright white plastic floor in an exhibition hall at the sprawling Georgia World Congress Center. The bare rooms — most only have a hospital bed — are meant to host patients sick with coronavirus but who don't need intensive care.

The state is spending $21.5 million on the project, including more than $6 million just to build the facility, which could be scaled up to 400 beds. It's meant to provide a margin of safety for Georgia's hospitals as a predicted peak in cases and hospitalizations approaches at the start of May amid the global virus outbreak.

“If you have something that happens when we do get to the peak time, and our hospital bed capacity is nip and tuck, we’ll be glad we had a facility like this,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters after his tour.

The hospital is supposed to open this weekend after final inspections, with crews having completed construction ahead of schedule.

"Well, it’s definitely sobering to have to do something like this in the first place," Kemp said. "But it’s also makes me feel good at how quickly something like this came together.”

As of Wednesday, the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency reported that 2,071 of the state's 2,950 critical care hospital beds were in use, as well as 8,900 of the state's 14,400 general hospital beds. Kemp said the Atlanta facility would be for patients from all over Georgia and touted other efforts to increase hospital capacity, including modular pods being deployed in Rome, Albany, Gainesville and Macon.

The surge hospital sits in an exhibit hall of more than 100,000 square feet (9,300 square meters). It includes portable toilet and shower units on trailers, as well as an area stocked with board games and footballs for patients who want to escape their rooms. On the other side of a wall is an area for medical staff to don protective gear on and take it off, as well as storage, food preparation and administration areas. Patients are supposed to arrive by ambulance to a loading dock, with Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital deciding who goes there. Grady, the safety-net public hospital for metro Atlanta, has fewer beds than usual after a leaking pipe flooded multiple floors months ago.

The facility is being staffed by 211 health care personnel hired on contract. It's being run by PAE, a government contractor that also built hospitals for Ebola patients in Liberia. Deputy Program Director Nick Visconti said that experience gave PAE a leg up on knowing how to construct Georgia's hospital.

“As far as the setup, it's basically all the same," Visconti said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.