The clock is ticking for leaders to meet the COVID-19 patient surge, with projections showing many states will have more patients than beds over the next four months. In response, governments and healthcare systems are devising creative ways to leverage non-traditional patient care spaces within the hospital, as well as non-healthcare space, to help communities meet this moment.

Inspiring examples are cropping up as public and private partners work together to unlock an array of non-traditional square footage to support healthcare—from shuttered hospitals for direct patient care to hotels and warehouses for ancillary healthcare services.

Their efforts are supported by the unprecedented opportunity for agility that lawmakers and regulatory bodies have temporarily granted. The $2 trillion congressional stimulus package includes emergency funding for hospitals and community health centers, while Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ blanket waivers are enabling hospitals to move patients between units and exceed normal bed limits.

As government and healthcare leaders team up with real estate partners to expand care space, both directly and indirectly, we’re seeing some creative and inspiring solutions:

  • Convention centers. As conferences and events are being pushed later in the calendar, these large facilities had the potential to sit empty. However, the plethora of available space within these centers makes them ideal for handling hospital overflow as they can be converted quickly into alternate care medical facilities to handle less serious cases. For example, McCormick Place in Chicago will maintain up to 1,000 beds for low-acuity patients.
  • Existing healthcare space. Some cities are expanding care space by reopening vacant hospitals and/or retrofitting space in medical office buildings. Leveraging existing healthcare space for care can be preferable to non-healthcare real estate, considering the strict maintenance and ventilation requirements. The Army Corps of Engineers is actively helping mayors and governors assess or build hospitals for COVID-19 and other patients.
  • Industrial space. From major fashion houses to 3-D printing companies, brands are utilizing their manufacturing spaces to produce much-needed supplies such as face masks, sanitizing solutions, and medical equipment. As some hospitals make more room onsite for patient care, they’re repurposing storage rooms for patients and therefore need expanded offsite storage for the surplus of supplies coming in. Industrial facilities with underutilized real estate, especially companies with highly calibrated refrigeration, can help alleviate healthcare’s storage shortages.
  • Sporting arenas and parks. From Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to the Charlotte Motor Speedway racing track in Concord, N.C., entertainment venues are opening up space for COVID-19 services. United Center indoor arena in Chicago, for instance, will be a logistics hub for COVID-19 operations for food distribution and medical supply staging. Depending on a variety of elements, large venues such as these may provide COVID-19 patient testing, shelter for homeless populations, or temporary mortuary capacity.
  • Hotels and dorms. Hotel and dorm rooms across the country are seeing a new wave of tenants, including healthcare workers and first responders who need to be closer to work and/or isolated from their families due to ongoing disease exposure. Some properties are housing COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms who must remain in isolation, with these properties carefully evaluated to ensure proximity to a hospital and transportation logistics for patients whose condition deteriorates, as well as ventilation and maintenance issues.

Agile real estate reconfigurations will likely play a more prominent role in crisis and pandemic planning moving forward across all industries. The American Institute of Architects has created a COVID-19 Alternative Care Sites Assessment tool for those evaluating potential properties.

Rethinking how we operate as a society, business, and industry has never been more important to ensure we learn from this crisis and are better prepared to meet the next global challenge, whatever that may be. It’s going to take new ways of thinking, concerted work, and unprecedented cross-industry collaboration to weather the storm of COVID-19 and eventually emerge more prepared as a result.

Kimberly Lamb is executive director, healthcare services, at JLL (Chicago). She can be reached at Katherine Tolomeo is healthcare director of compliance strategies at JLL (Chicago). She can be reached at