NEWARK, NJ — Bracing for the deluge of coronavirus-affected patients back in March, hospitals in Newark erected insulated outdoor tents for the inevitable overflow during the pandemic’s peak. 

But staff at Newark’s University Hospital treating patients inside those tents quickly realized there were big problems with the stopgap measure, according to Maureen Gang, Vice Chair of Quality & Patient Safety for University Hospital’s Emergency Department.

“That tent design, while in concept meeting our surge need, had inherent inefficiencies. With temperature control and weather challenges, there were major barriers to their utilization,” Gang said at a Thursday press conference.

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A collaboration between New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Hospital and the Tuchman Foundation, a philanthropic corporation, has produced a prototype for a solution to health care’s new set of challenges under COVID-19: converted, mobile shipping containers that can be deployed as medical care facilities anywhere in North America. 

The 40-foot modules are still in the design stages, but University Hospital President and CEO Shereef Elnahal said the team is only weeks away from finalizing the project. Medical staff completed patient-care simulations this week to test the units’ effectiveness as triage centers. 

Martin Tuchman, Chairman and CEO of the Tuchman Group, co-founded Interpool, one of the world’s leading container leasing companies. His foundation, which supports health care, provided the initial funding to develop the idea. 

“As a Newarker, this is one of those moments of great pride, to see this collaboration come together. We have been exposed as a nation to the fragility and the gaps within our health care system, the inadequate resources and coordination that we had to meet the demands of this pandemic,” said United States Senator Corey Booker, who was in attendance on Thursday.

The modules, designs by architect and NJIT lecturer Julio Garcia Figueroa, offer better temperature control and customizable internal environments, according to project leaders. The first design was geared toward simple health care provisioning, including initial COVID-19 point-of-care examination and testing. 

A potential next-stage prototype would take treatment of COVID-19 patients a step further by  including an isolation room required to treat and manage critical patients.

“If we’re able to scale up our model – that is, quickly transforming the same containers for use from testing centers to mobile field units capable of housing critically ill patients who have contracted infectious diseases – we will need to develop something highly adaptable and flexible. Some areas may lack ICU beds, others testing and triage centers,” said Steven Rubin, project manager and an adviser to The Tuchman Foundation. 

As the virus crushes the Western and Southern United States and transmission rates creep upward nationwide, the mobile medical facilities could prove to be lifesavers in surging regions. What’s more, Gang pointed to their usefulness in the event of natural disasters and in rural areas that lack health care facilities. 

“This project will provide an even better solution, with built-in medical capabilities and the ability to withstand inclement weather and storm conditions, that can be quickly deployed to COVID-19 hotspots or used for other emergencies,” she said.