How Is The Construction Industry Adapting To COVID-19?
In less than seven days last month, Mike Wood, vice president of construction at Medxcel, a facilities management firm (Indianapolis), said his organization went from wondering if COVID-19 was something the organization needed to address to setting up a 50-station command center to support its clients.
Working in tandem with Ascension Health, one of its biggest clients, the group began having discussions about clinical operations preparations, exploring conversion of space including offices and stadiums, and tracking surge forecasts of COVID-19 cases across the country. Additionally, the company set up a task force to start prioritizing existing construction projects and issuing safety guidances to reassure partners, suppliers, and workers, all in an effort to “maintain momentum as best as possible,” Wood said.
Similar scenarios are likely playing out across the country as construction firms are confronted with reorganizing priorities and adapting business practices as quickly as possible. During the webinar, “Managing Your Healthcare Construction Project in Midst of COVID-19 Crisis,” hosted on April 2 by the Association of Medical Facility Professionals, industry professionals working on the front lines shared what they’ve learned since the COVID-19 outbreak began, some of their strategies to stay relevant, and what they expect the future holds.
Wood said one strategy for managing the current uncertainty and ever-changing market has been to divide the company and leadership into four teams, with one focused on exploring and reporting on what’s happening in the moment; one looking at daily predictions; another with an eye on what’s expected to happen over next few weeks; and a small group of key leaders considering what to start preparing for in the future.
“It makes things a little less foggy,” he said, adding that the groups have daily calls and key leaders are expected to be available seven days a week.
Looking at the COVID-19 crisis from the contractor and supply chain perspective, Randy Keiser, vice president and national healthcare director at Turner Construction (New York), said he’s seeing a shift in project types, with growing demand from clients for alternate care facilities, including adapting non-healthcare facilities or hospital conference rooms and teaching areas into care areas. “We’re working 24/7 to get jobs done early,” he said.
So far, he adds, he’s been able to procure materials for projects, but said he’s starting to see a slow down with some orders, especially those items coming through customs. As a change in practice, he advised calling vendors to touch base and remind them if a project is related to healthcare so it remains a priority.
Keiser also discussed several changes to the job site, as companies address mandates on social distancing, workers’ concerns about crew safety, and working at active hospitals. He said the company is “going to great lengths” to clean doorknobs and bathrooms to improve workers’ confidence on the job site and improve morale. Other measures include adding extra entrances onto building sites and staggering shifts start times to reduce congestion as people arrive for work; additionally, everyone undergoes a health screening at the start of their shifts and is given masks to further ensure safety on the job site.
While there’s lots being done in the immediacy to deal with the changing landscape related to COVID-19, panelist Michelle Mader, president of Catalyst, a healthcare consultancy and division of Haskell (Charlotte, N.C.), discussed some of the implications for the construction and design industries “once we get on the other side of this.”
Looking at the short-term, she said she anticipates the industry will face growing problems with raw materials and construction supplies, especially as manufacturers shutter their doors or reduce manpower. “We anticipate increased supply chain challenges, especially if this goes on for another month or two,” she said during the webinar.
She also predicts medical construction projects that have been funded but haven’t broken ground to be re-evaluated in the next six to eight weeks. Mader explains that while healthcare facilities are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients, most of the capital for projects comes not through operations but investments in the market, which has also been impacted by the pandemic. As a result, she expects providers and investors to temporary suspend or cancel some planned projects.
While long-term implications are “a little less clear,” Mader said one of the biggest developments she’s seeing is increased regulations and policies around isolation and surge capacity at hospitals to mitigate COVID-19, which will impact the built environment. With expectations that the disease may have a resurgence in the fall or become a cyclical issue, much like influenza, she said policy makers and code officials are looking to “get on this in a hurry.”
She also anticipates continued demand for quick mobile solutions for large-scale crisis capacity. While many cities have efforts underway to transform existing structures including convention centers into treatment areas for non-acute cases, thereby freeing up hospital space for COVID-19 patients, she expects to see municipalities and organizations invest in full room set-ups that are built and stored off-site to be readily available for the next crisis.
Taken together, changing regulations and demand for flexible design solutions may also lead to renovation projects getting priority over new construction as facilities work to ensure their existing buildings are ready for future surges.
“This crisis has highlighted for providers current deficiencies and inadequacies,” Mader said.
Anne DiNardo is executive editor of Healthcare Design. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.