Army Corps of Engineers considers retrofitting former FMH building for use during pandemic

WINNSBORO – As the coronavirus pandemic spreads like wildfire across the country, eating up supplies, staff and facilities in its path, one emerging plan to mitigate the increasing and immediate need for more facilities calls for retrofitting existing facilities all around the country, including vacant, unused hospitals.

To that end, representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the S.C. Department of Environmental Control (SCDHEC), Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Guard were in Winnsboro last week and again Monday to perform site visits to the FMH campus.

The purpose of that initial visit, according to Tim Mitchell, Executive Director of Fairfield Memorial Hospital, which is still owned by the hospital’s Board of Directors, was to make a preliminary determination as to the fitness of the hospital building and grounds as an emergency care site during the coronavirus pandemic.  In addition to FMH, two other closed hospital facilities are also under consideration and were likewise inspected. 

“The Inspection consisted of a walkthrough of the hospital physical plant and grounds, as well as a cursory review of the electrical, heating/cooling and fire protection systems. I conducted that tour and addressed any questions from the group.  Catherine Fantry, FMH Board Chair, was also present during the inspection,” Mitchell wrote in a letter to County Administrator Jason Taylor.

Representatives from FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, HHS, and SCDHEC inspect FMH building on Monday.

At the conclusion of this inspection, the SCDHEC lead representative concluded that the hospital was in excellent condition considering it has been closed for 15 months and indicated that FMH would be designated as a “Tier One” site in his report, Mitchell said. 

“He also indicated that the inspections taking place at FMH and other sites were the first step in a statewide effort (at the direction of the Governor’s office) to identify possible temporary emergency care sites. 

On Monday, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) returned to the hospital to conduct a detailed survey of the physical plant and its environmental systems. 

During that visit, the lead engineer said the purpose of the visit was to determine what would be needed in terms of time and material to reopen FMH should it be designated as an emergency care site, Mitchell said. 

In a televised interview Monday on Fox News, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the Corps’ commanding general and Army Chief of Engineers, said his organization is working with governors across the country and has identified 341 facilities to retrofit for use as hospitals – some for coronavirus patients and some to house non-coronavirus patients.

Semonite said the solution is not tent hospitals but existing facilities that already have all the codes in place, heat, water, IT and parking lots, then make whatever retrofit or upgrades necessary to make it a hospital to meet the emergency needs of the pandemic.

“We are a federal/state team,” Semonite said, “made up of FEMA, HHS, USACE, governors and mayors.” He said the team is looking at “amazing” analytics to know where there will be big shortages of beds in the next two to three weeks.

The facilities are retrofitted in a matter of days or short weeks. A standard design, already sanctioned by HHS and FEMA, is passed to mayors and governors all around the country. The governors recommend facilities and give the go-ahead for each project.

“This is happening not just in New York and Chicago, but in small towns and small cities all over the country,” Semonite said.

Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy said he looks forward to being able to accommodate the health care needs that are growing out of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If the Corps can use this hospital to help the citizens of our town and county and of South Carolina, we’re happy to do what we can, to let them use it.” Gaddy said.

That sentiment was echoed by FMH Board Chair Catherine Fantry.

“Our job is to do what we can to help the state and the country at a time like this,” she said.

The Voice was unable to reach representatives at USACE or SCDHEC for interviews.

At press time on Wednesday, no designation had been made either by declaration, proclamation or executive order by the Governor’s office to use the hospital.