An Emergency Response

Jesse White (’18 mechanical engineering) is part of a team of engineers turning McCormick Place into an alternative treatment facility for low acute COVID-19 patients.

These days, when you hear the phrase “flatten the curve”, it’s referring to slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus to avoid overwhelming hospitals. The Army Corps of Engineers based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois have taken a different approach to the problem. In addition to flattening the curve, Cook County is adding beds.

In an effort to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the Army Corps of Engineers was brought in to convert McCormick Place, a massive convention center, into an alternative care facility. The project resulted in 3000 new available beds for low acute patients who have tested positive for the virus.

2018 Mechanical engineering graduate Jesse White is a front-line member of the team formed by the Corps to supervise and execute the plan. We spoke with Jesse about the experience, and just what had to be done to take on such a massive project with a compressed timeline, in this episode of Factor Analysis.

McCormick Place in Cook County, Illinois, is being transformed to an alternative care facility to treat low acute COVID-19 patients.

Announcer
Welcome to Factor Analysis, an in-depth conversation of engineering knowledge from the classroom to the field, and topical issues surrounding work and life from an engineer’s viewpoint.

Travis Ballstadt
Welcome to Factor Analysis. Today we’re speaking with Jesse White, a 2018 mechanical engineering graduate who’s been working for the Army Corps of Engineers. Recently, Jesse was a part of a team tasked with turning McCormick Place in Chicago into a makeshift hospital to add additional beds in the area for treating COVID patients. Jesse, thanks for joining us today.

Jesse White
No worries, man, I’m happy to be on

Travis Ballstadt
What type of projects have you been typically working on?

Jesse White
So personally, I work in the military construction aspect of the corps of engineers. The thing about the corps that a lot of people don’t know is that it’s actually one of the largest engineering organizations in the world and there’s actually like a ton of different tasks that were associated with. So a lot of people might know us from our work on the locke and dams. So, you know, the Army Corps is in charge of maintaining and operating all the locke and dams along the Mississippi River, which have obviously been a really important, you know, thing throughout history. But so me personally, I work in the military construction aspect of the Corps, which, so we do things, so any of the military bases, like Army Reserve centers and stuff around the country, if there’s ever any work that’s, you know, being performed using federal dollars, typically the US Army Corps of Engineers is the one overseeing that. So I work specifically out of the Louisville district. So that’s where our headquarters is, and I work out of a field office in Scott Air Force Base. So we’re on the ground, you know, boots on the ground. And, you know, we basically have a mix of doing stuff, you know, like office type work and also going out in the field and doing supervisory work. So that’s kind of a broad, you know, overview of kind of what, what our role is.

Travis Ballstadt
Excellent, excellent. And and so then when this current project that you’re working on, came onto your radar, this was quite a bit different. Tell us a little bit about this this project.

Jesse White
Yes. So, so we actually just recently started tele working from home and I got a call from my boss, and he’s like, Okay, what, uh, you know, you have any plans for next week, anything going on? I was like, Yeah, no, he’s like, well, I, I volunteered us for this emergency response. And they’re wanting to send us up to Chicago, and I’m like, Oh, I’d be interested. So why don’t we leave in like next week or something? He’s like, no, we’re leaving tomorrow. So I’m like, Oh, you know? So it’s kind of as you know, as pretty as a pretty quick thing. And you know, I guess I was definitely, you know, just willing to, to go out there and volunteer just because I know, you know, kind of how the situation is, and you know how important this type of work is, these emergency operations are definitely a whole different ballgame. I’ve never actually been a part of any. But, you know, we’ve done this sort of work in the past on like Hurricane Katrina and down in the Virgin Islands as well. So it’s something that the core is very, very involved in. So but this was a little bit different just because I guess it was a little closer to home, you know? And also, just the circumstances were quite a bit different.

Travis Ballstadt
Just catch us up here, Jesse, what is that? What is McCormick Place for those who don’t know,

Jesse White
So, McCormick Place is actually the largest Convention Center, I believe in North America. And essentially, you know, right now it’s a it’s just this huge open space, you know, there’s not any conventions going on, obviously, I believe the the management over there, kind of volunteered it up as as the space to to make these COVID-19 they’re calling them alternate care facilities and I say that but really they’re they’re, they’re basically field hospitals. You know, that’s that’s the lingo that they wanted to put out. They didn’t want to use the term hospital because the I guess they’re, you know, all the requirements that go into certifying like a hospital all that. So that’s the official term they use as alternate care facility. And so essentially, we, the Army Corps of Engineers worked as the contracting agency and the supervisory agency for the physical construction of like, all the beds and the cubicles and all that the space itself. So basically, the physical infrastructure was was done by us, you know, using like a contractor. So, in this case, it was the actual management over there, the ownership of McCormick Place. And then also the big subcontractor was Walsh construction who were really big in Chicago. So they’re the ones who actually did the work. And and we were essentially contracting that and doing the supervisory stuff and making sure things were installed, you know, the way that they they’re supposed to be in just, you know, maintaining the requirements of of what’s going on and what needs to be put in. I think we’re right now where we’re at around 3000 beds at McCormick. So it’s definitely pretty huge. And I think from our latest guidance, they’re actually planning on moving some inmates in there because a lot of the prisons have been hit pretty hard in the Chicago area,

Travis Ballstadt
You say they’re, they’re being classified as limited care facilities, which makes a lot of sense because they’re really specifically, they’re not doing other types of surgeries and care at these at this location. This is strictly focused on treating COVID-19 patients correct. It’s a limit. It’s a very limited scope of the work that’s being done here.

Jesse White
Right and right from the get go. We are coordinating with a lot of medical professionals, people from like the Illinois Department of Health and just other like actual like staff that would be working in these care facilities. You know, nurses and doctors. And they made it pretty clear that so the majority of the beds that we’re putting, just to clarify, there’s actually three other locations in Chicago that the other three are actually former hospitals that were recently closed down. And we basically brought them back online. But they are pretty clear from the get go that anybody that’s going in here, if they got to a point where they needed pretty extreme medical care, that they’re going to be transferred to an actual hospital and actual, you know,

Travis Ballstadt
full service facility.

Jesse White
And, and so basically, these areas are supposed to serve as overflow for, you know, low acute patients. And we actually do have one of our locations I believe, had has 300 like high acute beds so like people can be in pretty critical condition. But if they get to a certain point, absolutely. They’re going to be immediately put on ambulance and sent to you know, an actual facility that could perform like those life saving measures.

Travis Ballstadt
You mentioned that the Army Corps of Engineers has done this sort of thing in the past and you brought up Katrina. Were those full scale? Or full scale limited care facilities like this? Or were those more just shelters for people who had, you know, lost their homes to the to the hurricane? Was this kind of a, this is, is this a rare thing for the Army Corps of Engineers? Or is this something that happens more frequently than any of us may have ever noticed?

Jesse White
No, I mean, I think this is definitely a pretty unique situation. I don’t recall anything like this being done for, you know, any of the other kind of previous outbreaks like swine flu or SARS, or anything, you know, never got to this scale. In terms of Katrina, and then like, what what happened with the Virgin Islands, we were actually involved that they call it like a blue tarping program and essentially, you know, these people have lost their homes completely. And we’re trying to set up shelter as quickly as possible. So a lot of times that involves just using, like existing walls or, you know, building walls quickly and putting the, you know, this blue tarping material over as a roof just while they, you know, basically, you know, pick up the pieces and, you know, get back to, you know, doing their daily things in their life, you know, taking care of the kids and all that, you know, and they need to shelter obviously, so, but that that that type of work like that, it’s kind of a different scale of work. And that, that always takes a lot longer. This was a quick turnaround, when we awarded the contracts, I believe it was the very end of March is when the contractors actually got to go ahead to start doing the work. And actually, tomorrow is their deadline for completing but I think a lot of them have already gotten it done by I mean that that’s less than a month turnaround to to essentially get a field hospital fully up and operational. So. It was a pretty crazy turnaroumnd. I’ve never seen anything quite like that. So definitely a unique situation. I, I’m hoping maybe there’s some lessons learned here just in terms of government response. And, you know, you know, if something like this did end up happening again, you know, could we do it a little quicker, more efficiently? Or

Travis Ballstadt
I Yeah, I agree. The important thing right now is that everyone stays safe, and we get through this. And then look back and learn from this experience. How do you prepare for something like this, not only you know, this is a large project. It’s a very, it’s a highly compressed timeline for from start to finish. And then you add a global pandemic to the mix. How do you how do you prepare yourself mentally and, and just, you know, as an engineer, how do you get ready for something like this and go and get get started?

Jesse White
I mean, to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect when I when I first showed up in Chicago. I know my supervisor kind of specifically chose some of us some of the younger guys, some of the lower risk type people. You know, when I first found out I was like, oh, Chicago, you know, I mean, I’m like, Well, if I, you know, wasn’t gonna get exposed, like now I’m definitely gonna get exposed because, I mean, on these projects, you’re, you’re around hundreds of different people, hundreds to thousands of different people, you know, just because the scale the project kind of demands that so. And I actually ended up going to Detroit as well for a few days to help out with them, because there are a few things that, you know, basically everybody was learning on the fly with these and we’re just trying to share knowledge as best we could. So we actually went up there to kind of brief them on the process a little bit. So yeah, I guess, you know, I guess put my worries you know, I tried to be as safe as possible. But, you know, I kind of put those worries aside a little bit just knew that this was kind of a part of a bigger thing. You know, what I mean, in terms of, you know, helping out the state and the country. I tried not to think too much about, you know?

Travis Ballstadt
Sure, sure. Well. And when you’re in a situation like that sometimes you have to just accept the fact that you’re in the situation and there’s a job that has to be done.

Jesse White
Somebody’s got to do it. So.

Travis Ballstadt
So, I think he did have the right approach there that it’s a job that needs to be done. I’m willing to take the risk. Let’s do this. And let’s get it done.

Jesse White
Right. That’s that’s definitely, I think what my mindset was, with this so

Travis Ballstadt
How do you feel like your time at Iowa State, How did that prepare you for this for the job? And maybe even more specifically for this project? Is there anything you can point to that directly relates to what you’re doing on a daily basis?

Jesse White
Yeah, no, definitely. I think a lot of the project base classes that I and like team building exercises within those project base classes absolutely helped just because there’s a lot of people we need to coordinate with. And then also like, just to crunch the time crunch, very relatable to you know, any any projects that I worked on with I mean, I know a lot of engineering students can attest that sometimes you’re really, you know, up back against the wall and you got to get something done, you know, and that was definitely the case here. We were prioritizing, you know, getting these done as fast as possible. So, I would say for sure that those two aspects, this was kind of like a crazy thing. It’s nothing that I could really point to specifically within some of the other aspects of my class, but, but definitely those things for sure. I definitely think that, you know, having those experiences at Iowa State, you know, kind of help prepare me especially, you know, mentally just going into this that, you know, not to lose my cool and, you know, because there are some times, I mean, we were putting in 12 hour days, you know, seven days a week, so I guess just you know, especially that like just just get get the job done type of mindset. That’s definitely something I had to do. You know, back when I was at Iowa State when, when push came to shove that I was able to, you know, take care of business.

Travis Ballstadt
Well, Jesse, I want to thank you for joining us today, I want to thank you for the work you’ve done, especially on a project like this. This is something that will have a huge impact not just in the Chicago metro area, but I think across you know, nationwide. And I want to thank you for having the the right attitude about going about this project.

Jesse White
I appreciate that Travis thanks.

Travis Ballstadt
And thank you for tuning in to Factor Analysis. If you haven’t already done so please make sure to click subscribe wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Until next time, be safe stay home stay healthy, save lives, flatten the curve. Thanks for listening.

Announcer
Factor Analysis is produced by Iowa State University’s College of Engineering. For a list of ways to keep up with the college including more podcasts, social media and apps, go to engineering.iastate.edu. Music by Lee Rosevere and used under creative commons license.

One thought on “An Emergency Response

  1. Thanks for all the great work you are doing for the community. You have made the entire Department of Mechanical Engineering proud!

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