On March 31, 2020: Members of the Connecticut National Guard unload equipment for a 250-bed field hospital at Southern Connecticut State University. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
Earlier this year, a member of the Connecticut National Guard moves dividers between patient beds in a mobile field hospital at Southern Connecticut State University. The Connecticut Convention Center is getting a similar makeover Friday. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio

National Guard troops on Friday will begin the temporary conversion of the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford into a 600-bed hospital, a precautionary measure that comes after hospitalizations for COVID-19 nearly doubled over 30 days.

The work begins at the end of a week when hospitalizations have stabilized around 1,250, far below the peak of nearly 2,000 in the first wave of cases in the spring. Occupancy of ICU beds is currently 58% in Hartford County and 60% statewide.

“This is purely precautionary,” Gov. Ned Lamont said.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 began Monday, and all doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine slated for Connecticut this week safely arrived by Wednesday evening, ahead of a major snowstorm that prompted an overnight closure of highways to tractor trailers.

In concert with neighboring states, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered the highways closed to tractor trailer traffic from 9 p.m. Wednesday until 9 a.m. Thursday. At times, the storm is expected to dump between 1½ and 3 inches an hour. State offices will be closed Thursday.

“This is an old-fashioned emergency,” Lamont said.

But the pandemic has changed how Connecticut manages emergencies. The Emergency Operations Center in the State Armory in Hartford is largely abandoned, its quarters too close for social distancing. The governor and his transportation, public safety and utility officials convened virtually Wednesday.

And three dozen Department of Transportation employees, including two dozen highway workers, were out with COVID-19. Private contractors are filling the void, though the DOT says the size of the storm, not the number of absences, is dictating how many contractors are being used.

James Rovella, the commissioner of emergency services and public protection, said a previous wind storm provided a dress rehearsal for a virtual operations center during the season’s first significant snowfall.

“We feel we are ready for this,” Rovella said.

Connecticut has been under a state of emergency since March due to a COVID-19 pandemic now blamed for 5,506 deaths in the state and infections in 157,781 of the state’s 3.5 million residents. On Wednesday, the state reported 2,319 new cases and 40 additional deaths.

If needed, the facility at the convention center will be operated by Hartford HealthCare, which runs Hartford Hospital and six other acute-care hospitals. The center was prepared for overflow cases in the spring but never was used, as was the case with two military field hospitals.

Josh Geballe, the governor’s chief operating officer, said the timing of the build-out in Hartford was dictated in part by demands on the National Guard, which will be used to help distribute the vaccine as it becomes more widely available.

“We want to get this out of the way,” Geballe said.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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