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