Using Technology to Identify Potential Federal Properties to Increase Public Health Capacity for COVID-19
By Dan Lips and Ian Patterson
Images of the USNS Comfort docking on Manhattan’s West Side and a field hospital constructed in Central Park show the gravity of the medical emergency taking place in New York City. As the heroic doctors, nurses, health care professionals and first responders work to take care of patients, policymakers across the nation must anticipate similar surges in hospital demand as the pandemic spreads to other communities.
That’s why Lincoln is creating new tech that connects underutilized federal properties with urgent local needs.
Background on the Need to Increase Hospital and Public Health Capacity
Concerns about the potential need for increased hospital and quarantine (or isolation) care have led communities across the country to take unprecedented steps to anticipate a surge in COVID-19 patients. A New Orleans convention center now houses a COVID-19 recovery center for patients who do not need ICU care. Chicago is also converting a convention center into a field hospital. Las Vegas established an encampment for homeless people in a parking lot, where they are told to sleep six feet apart:
Medical experts are predicting that the need for care due to COVID-19 infections could exceed hospital capacity in the United States in the coming months, depending on the percentage of people that become infected. (If you’re interested in the detailed projections, take a look at data projections from the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.)
Repurposing Surplus Government Property as an Option to Increase Capacity
As communities across the country work to increase hospital and quarantine capacity to address the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local leaders should consider all options to use existing resources to address the current national emergency. In addition to convention centers, parking lots, hotels and parks, policymakers should consider repurposing surplus government property as an option to increase capacity.
Lincoln Network offered this policy recommendation in a paper published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The federal government, for example, maintains thousands of surplus properties across the country that could potentially be used to increase public health capacity. The Lincoln Network reviewed publicly-available data sources about the thousands of surplus federal properties and found:
“…according to GSA, federal agencies reported that 34 hospital buildings, 140 dormitories/barrack buildings, and 827 family housing units were “unutilized” as of FY 2018. That year, federal agencies also reported that 7 hospital buildings, 120 dormitories/barracks buildings, and 328 family housing units were “underutilized” at the time.”
Federal law authorizes federal agencies, including the General Services Administration and HHS Department, may sell or lease a property to a state, local government or medical institution to address public health needs.
In addition to surplus federal properties, state and local governments may also have unused government properties that could be researched. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher has researched vacant public school buildings across the United States. Butcher partnered with the Lincoln Network to explain how these vacant buildings could also be potentially useful assets to boost public health capacity.
Finding “Needles in Haystacks” — The Challenge of Identifying Useful Properties
An expert on real property that Lincoln Network consulted suggested that searching for surplus federal properties to increase hospital and quarantine capacity would be similar to searching for a needle in a haystack. Existing federal data sources (including an FY2018 listing of federal real property from Data.gov) are large, cumbersome, and disorganized. One excel database has more than 300,000 lines. In addition, federal data about property size and location do not include detailed information about facility quality or resources (such as electrical capacity, number of bathrooms, and so forth). Nevertheless, the current national emergency and grave medical challenges facing communities across the country warrants searching the haystack to find the proverbial needle, even if only one surplus federal facility proves helpful to a local community.
Using Technology and a Proof-of-Concept Tool to Search, Map, and Identify Properties
Lincoln Network’s Studio and Policy teams put our heads together and began searching for properties. Studio’s Ian Patterson modified the database to allow us to rule out certain properties that would be unsuitable and focus our search based on key factors, including square footage and whether the property was “underutilized” or “unutilized.” He linked the database to a google map to allow us to visually search the geographic location of these surplus properties and their proximity to areas projected to see increased hospital demand. See Ian’s 4-minute video overview of the project and the tool he developed here.
Our initial review of available federal data identified several “underutilized” or “unutilized” properties that could potentially be repurposed to boost hospital and quarantine capacity, including “underutilized” Veterans Administration hospitals near New York and other major population centers, a barracks near New York City, and an unused hospital in Pittsburgh, for starters. Using tools like google search, street-view, and satellite mapping, we can remotely eyeball the property to have a basic sense of whether it could potentially be repurposed.
Identifying Useful Properties Will Require Input from State and Local Officials
Lincoln Network has received feedback from federal officials, including within the General Services Administration, which manages federal real property. We learned that repurposing existing federal properties will need input from state and local government officials and stakeholders: 1) to clarify where properties are needed to increase capacity, and 2) input about specific requirements about what is needed at the properties (such as beds, electrical capacity, etc).
If state and local officials and their federal partners provide this input, we can refine our search parameters to sort properties to help policymakers quickly understand what is available. Lincoln Network is currently socializing our proof-of-concept work with groups that represent state and local government officials and other stakeholders.
We recognize that identifying facilities is only one of the many challenges the nation faces to address medical care capacity, such as identifying and mobilizing needed medical personnel, providing necessary personal protective equipment, and acquiring critical assets like respirators.
But the current national emergency requires creative thinking about how best to use all available resources to help communities across the nation. Surplus federal properties are a promising resource to consider.