The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre could become a massive makeshift intensive care hospital, treating hundreds of seriously ill coronavirus patients under a plan being considered by the state government.
Government and industry sources with knowledge of the plans told The Age that preparations were also underway to use part of the riverside landmark as a temporary morgue to store what is feared could be a large number of bodies of victims of the pandemic.
Jeff’s Shed: the Melbourne Exhibition Centre.Credit:Matthew Piper
Victoria’s government is bracing for up to 2000 intensive care admissions at the peak of the pandemic here, expected in late May or early June. The state only had about 475 ICU beds before the crisis developed, compared with about 875 in NSW.
The conversion of the Convention Centre, known to locals as Jeff’s Shed after former premier Jeff Kennett, would follow the lead of other cities including New York and London, which have re-tooled similar structures to treat large numbers of coronavirus patients.
The vast ExCel centre in London's Docklands is expected to be ready to take the first of up to 500 patients within days.
During the Spanish flu epidemic in 1919, 35 temporary hospitals were set up around Victoria including the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings, which treated about 1500 patients at a time.
The escalating coronavirus pandemic is also expected to overwhelm the state’s morgue capacity which could not cope with the numbers of bodies from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Temporary refrigerated storage had to be set up in the car park of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine during that crisis.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos have been frank about the need for more capacity to treat the large numbers of critically ill people expected in the present pandemic and have re-opened wards at the old Peter McCallum hospital in East Melbourne and fast-tracked new beds at Casey Hospital.
As the crisis deepened on Thursday with the state’s first three COVID-19 deaths confirmed, amid 520 cases of illness, Ms Mikakos confirmed that care capacity in “non-hospital settings” was in the planning stages but would not say which buildings were being considered.
“We are looking at both hospital settings and non-hospital settings for additional bed capacity we may require,” Ms Mikakos said.
Hospital beds in the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton during the influenza pandemic.Credit:Museums Victoria
“I’m not in a position to make announcements about that today but we're definitely looking at other opportunities to expand that capacity further.”
The management of the Convention Centre would not comment and referred questions back to the Department of Health Human Services.
The state government refused to confirm whether the convention centre would be used as temporary hospital.
"The department is undertaking a range of contingency planning looking at health and possible non-health settings that could be used to create extra capacity if needed," a government spokeswoman said on Thursday.
The venue shut its doors to the public on March 16 in the wake of the Victorian government’s state of emergency declarations which banned indoor gatherings of more than 100 people.
The 70,000 square metre centre, which dominates the South Bank of the Yarra at the western edge of Melbourne’s CBD was built in 1995 and earned its nickname for the complex’s distinctive appearance and for Mr Kennett’s decision to abandon plans for a museum on the site and build a convention centre instead.
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