Auto show to medical facility in 2 months: How the Illinois National Guard is helping transform McCormick Place

  • Members of the Illinois Air National Guard assemble wheelchairs March 30 at McCormick Place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Members of the Illinois Air National Guard assemble wheelchairs March 30 at McCormick Place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

  • "Our major role is the labor-intensive part of moving physical supplies," says Illinois National Guard Capt. Shane Hill.

    "Our major role is the labor-intensive part of moving physical supplies," says Illinois National Guard Capt. Shane Hill. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

  • Members of the Illinois Air National Guard ready medical supplies at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Members of the Illinois Air National Guard ready medical supplies at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

  • A C-130H Hercules aircraft assigned to the 182nd Airlift Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, delivers 250 medical isolation pods Wednesday to Chicago Midway International Airport for use at McCormick Place.

    A C-130H Hercules aircraft assigned to the 182nd Airlift Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, delivers 250 medical isolation pods Wednesday to Chicago Midway International Airport for use at McCormick Place. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

  • Members of the Illinois Air National Guard including Technical Sgt. Jason Erlick, left, of Palatine move medical equipment Monday at McCormick Place in Chicago.

    Members of the Illinois Air National Guard including Technical Sgt. Jason Erlick, left, of Palatine move medical equipment Monday at McCormick Place in Chicago. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

  • Instead of conventioneer booths, hospital rooms emerge at McCormick Place April 1 with an assist from members of the Illinois Air National Guard as the convention center is converted to an alternative care facility.

    Instead of conventioneer booths, hospital rooms emerge at McCormick Place April 1 with an assist from members of the Illinois Air National Guard as the convention center is converted to an alternative care facility. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

  • U.S. Air Force Brigadier Gen. Richard R. Neely, Illinois adjutant general, is briefed on McCormick Place's conversion to a temporary hospital to handle COVID-19 patients.

    U.S. Air Force Brigadier Gen. Richard R. Neely, Illinois adjutant general, is briefed on McCormick Place's conversion to a temporary hospital to handle COVID-19 patients. Courtesy of the Air Force/Sr. Airman Jay Grabiec

 
 
Updated 4/9/2020 6:41 PM

McCormick Place overflowed with chrome Feb. 8 as consumers kicked tires and attendants buffed spotless hoods at the Chicago Auto Show's opening day.

Two months later, the convention center bustles again, but this time it's Illinois National Guard troops heaving mattresses and medical supplies, assembling a hospital from scratch.

 

The state's McCormick Place Alternate Care Facility is intended to provide up to 3,500 beds for patients who do not need intensive care for COVID-19.

On Wednesday, members of the Illinois Air National Guard flew two C-130H Hercules cargo aircraft loaded with equipment from Oregon to Midway International Airport.

From there, the cargo of 250 medical isolation pods was conveyed to McCormick Place.

Back in late March, "when we entered McCormick Place, the three halls were completely bare," said Technical Sgt. Jason Erlick of Palatine, who arrived with a team from the Peoria-based Illinois National Guard's 182nd Airlift Wing. "Everything was in pallets."

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The first task was creating 500 beds for the first phase of the facility. "We distributed everything down to toothbrushes, sheets and pillows ... everything a patient may need," Erlick said.

As of Thursday, Guard members were "putting together hundreds of office chairs for the wonderful nurses at the nursing stations," Erlick said.

Moving supplies is a major undertaking.

"That space is quite vast, and to see it being used the way it is ... is an amazing feat," Illinois National Guard Capt. Shane Hill said. The Guard "trains for all types of contingencies," such as flood response, but "this is probably one of the most significant missions we've been a part of," Hill said.

Coordinating the transformation are members of the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. and Illinois Emergency Management Agencies, and the Illinois National Guard's 182nd unit, 183rd Wing from Springfield, and 126th Air Refueling Wing from Belleville.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Everyone comes from different walks of life, some are married, some are single, some have kids," said Erlick, a math teacher and family man who had been taking time off after a deployment in Kuwait until COVID-19 struck. "People from all over are working to get this up and running as quick as possible."

He's been staying in a hotel with other Guard members for the assignment.

"You walk in here daily and have a feeling of history going on. It's sad at times, it's humbling at times ... it's just an incredible experience."

Along with patient rooms, the medical center will include 14 nursing stations and a pharmacy.

Many of the Guard members pitching in are college students or 20-somethings just starting their careers.

"They're stepping up and meeting the challenges put before them," said Hill, a junior high school associate principal in Normal.

The facility could be ready for patients next week, although officials aren't setting a firm date yet.

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