Tufts University is preparing some of its undergraduate dormitories in case they are needed by hospitals as isolation rooms for patients with mild coronavirus symptoms.
Middlebury College in Vermont has drained its ice-hockey rink, on the chance that the local hospital needs space to conduct offsite virus testing or for storage.
And Harvard University is emptying a residence hall near Boston’s Longwood Medical Area in an effort to reduce density around the teaching hospitals there and keep the virus contained.
College campuses, many of which have sent students home amid fears the coronavirus would sweep through their communities, suddenly find themselves with an unusual asset this spring: plenty of unused space.
And some of them are in conversations with local hospitals and municipal officials to convert the space in case health care facilities become overcrowded or stretched too thin. It is the type of mobilization not seen on campuses since World War II, when the military used some colleges as training centers, or when the 1918 Spanish Flu forced universities to convert some of their dorms into infirmaries.
“This is our country’s Dunkirk moment,” said Anthony Monaco, the president of Tufts University, invoking the World War II battle in which British civilians helped evacuate Allied soldiers from a beach in France.
Tufts has been reviewing the facilities and resources it has available, including dorms in Medford that could house patients who test positive for coronavirus and need to be isolated instead of going home to elderly relatives, but who don’t need intensive hospital care, Monaco said.
The university also emptied its 90 single-occupancy dorm in Boston, next to Tufts Medical Center, which is separate from the main campus but serves as its primary teaching hospital. The dorms may have to be used by hospital staff, Monaco said.
University campuses can also be used to conduct drive-thru testing for the coronavirus and other needs, but that requires administrators to start planning now, Monaco said.
Tufts officials said they have no plans to charge individuals for the services.
The idea of converting dorms into makeshift hospital rooms has also been floated in New York.
Earlier this week, New York University told students they had to leave their dorms in case the outbreak worsened and hospitals ran out of beds. On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged President Trump to mobilize the federal government to repurpose existing infrastructure, such as residence halls, to serve as medical centers.
In central Vermont, Middlebury College is collaborating with Porter Medical Center, part of the University of Vermont Health Network, to prepare for worst-case scenarios and is meeting regularly with town and health care officials, Laurie Patton, the college’s president, wrote in an email.
Middlebury has discussed the use of some of its buildings with the hospital and has drained its ice hockey rink, just in case that large space needs to be adapted for health care purposes, she said.
“We have not developed any specific contingency plans at this moment in terms of space needs, but we are working closely and collaboratively with Middlebury College to begin to develop potential areas of opportunity to band together and serve our community,” said Ronald G. Hallman, a spokesman for the health system.
Harvard has tapped experts at its Kennedy School, who include government officials such as former US defense secretary Ash Carter, for logistical advice on managing large-scale crisis and ways to mobilize to help its affiliate hospitals.
Harvard is moving medical school students from their dorms in the Longwood neighborhood of Boston to the university’s business school campus to ensure students aren’t sharing bedrooms and bathrooms, where the virus can easily spread. But the change also helps reduce the number of people near the hospitals who could spread the virus.
The medical school in a message to students also alerted them that those in their third and fourth years in school and with more experience may eventually be called in to help with patients who aren’t exposed to COVID-19, as faculty and medical residents are deployed to deal with the crisis.
“Harvard is coordinating with area hospitals and other institutions on how, as a community, we can work to flatten the curve of this public health emergency and ensure we are in the strongest position to provide the assistance and care people across our community need today,” said Jonathan Swain, a spokesman, in an e-mailed statement.
The university is also trying to “anticipate potential contingencies that may need to be in place in the coming days and weeks,” he added.
Whether college dorms and other buildings can be reused for more than health care as the pandemic spreads is unclear. Activists for the homeless, for example, have called on universities to open empty residence halls as shelters to contain the virus’s spread among vulnerable populations.
Monaco, the president of Tufts, said the university hasn’t considered that use and hasn’t been approached by the government about such a need.