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BOSTON — A growing number of U.S. colleges are preparing to turn empty dorms into temporary housing for patients with the coronavirus as the nation’s hospitals brace for a possible surge of cases that could push treatment centers beyond their limits.
Tufts University announced Wednesday that it’s making hundreds of vacant dorm rooms available in coming weeks to help relieve “unprecedented stress” on the health care system. The Massachusetts school’s president called on university leaders across the country to follow suit, saying they have a civic duty to help in times of crisis.
Middlebury College in Vermont said it’s also offering some of its buildings as local officials craft emergency plans, and New York University is asking students who live near campus to return and clear out their dorm rooms in case they’re needed to house patients later.
Some state leaders see college campuses as a natural fit to serve as temporary field hospitals. Colleges across the U.S. have started to empty over the past week as students are sent home to curb the virus’ spread. Many campuses suddenly have hundreds of beds, dining halls and gyms that authorities say could be used to support patients or medical workers.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday urged President Donald Trump to mobilize the military to turn college dorms into makeshift medical centers. He said states can’t build hospitals or acquire ventilators fast enough to meet expected demand, adding that the “best hope” is to create temporary medical facilities.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has also proposed using dorms to house patients, and state health officials in Massachusetts said Wednesday that the move makes sense.
Marylou Sudders, Massachusetts’ secretary of health and human services, said college dorms are “very much on our list of opportunities.”
“Every challenge sometimes creates an opportunity, and obviously the empty dorms have created an opportunity for us,” she said.
A statement from New York University said that although officials have not received specific instructions from the state, the school “would want to be in a position to help if needed.”
The school sent a message to students on Tuesday asking those who live nearby to get their belongings, saying it would make “an important contribution to health measures that may come later.” Officials offered to ship items to students who live farther away or didn’t feel safe returning to campus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
At Middlebury, President Laurie Patton said officials are crafting contingency plans but have not been called on for help yet. She said the school has drained its ice hockey rink to provide space “in an over-abundance of caution.”
Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, said most schools have been too busy to consider how they can help local hospitals, but he expects further discussion in coming weeks. Still, he said schools will need to weigh questions about legal liability, including who is responsible if something goes wrong in a dorm room being used to house patients.
At Tufts, near Boston, President Tony Monaco said officials are examining those types of questions. Although the campus is prepared to house coronavirus patients, he said it could also house patients recovering from surgery or other treatment to help free hospital beds for patients with the virus.
Any patients would be kept away from dorms housing about 200 Tufts students who were allowed to stay on campus during the closure. Campus staff with military backgrounds are leading the logistics and planning how to isolate parts of campus that would house sick patients, Monaco said.
The campus is also offering to house medical workers who have been exposed to the virus and want to stay isolated from family members.
Monaco compares it to the moment in World War II when British civilians used their own boats to rescue stranded soldiers from the French town of Dunkirk.
“I think this is our Dunkirk moment as a country,” he said. “Now is the time to step up and help.”
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.