Converting shipping containers into emergency COVID-19 hospitals

Connected Units for Respiratory Ailments (CURA) aims to convert shipping containers into plug-in intensive-care pods for the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy CURA
Connected Units for Respiratory Ailments (CURA) aims to convert shipping containers into plug-in intensive-care pods for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image courtesy CURA

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, an international task group of designers, engineers, medical professionals, and military experts have joined forces to work on Connected Units for Respiratory Ailments (CURA), an open-source project aimed at building the capacity of intensive-care units (ICU).

List of people and organizations who have contributed thus far to CURA: CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati with Italo Rota (design and innovation), Humanitas Research Hospital (medical engineering), Policlinico di Milano (medical consultancy), Jacobs (Alberto Riva for master planning, design, construction, and logistics support services), Studio FM milano (visual identity and graphic design), Squint/opera (digital media), Alex Neame of Team Rubicon UK (logistics), Ivan Pavanello of Projema (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing [MEP] engineering), Dr. Maurizio Lanfranco of Ospedale Cottolengo (medical consultancy).

“CURA was conceived just a few weeks ago, when the coronavirus pandemic led us to reset our standard priorities,” said Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer who leads the CRA design and innovation practice in New York and Turin. “The first step has been to form a ‘task force’ with engineers, doctors, military experts, [non-governmental organizations] NGOs, and many different consultants. While we are now working around the clock to finalize the first prototype, we will put the drawings and tech specs on CURApods.org shortly, so that everybody can potentially reproduce and develop the project where it is more needed, according to an open-source approach.”

The first prototype of CURA is currently being built in Milan, Italy. It uses repurposed shipping containers to create plug-in biocontainment pods that can be deployed quickly around the world, promptly responding to the shortage of ICU space in hospitals and the spread of the disease.

CURA is a compact intensive-care pod for patients with respiratory infections, hosted in a 6-m (20-ft) intermodal container with biocontainment. Each unit works autonomously and can be shipped anywhere. Individual pods are connected by an inflatable structure to create multiple modular configurations, from four beds to over 40, which can be deployed in just a few hours. Some pods can be placed in proximity to a hospital (e.g. in parking lots) to expand ICU capacity, while others could be used to create self-standing field hospitals of varying sizes.

CURA aims to improve the efficiency of existing solutions in the design of field hospitals, tailoring them to the current pandemic.

The response to the emergency in China and Italy so far has been to set up makeshift emergency hospitals such as tents, or build new prefabricated wards with biocontainment. While the latter option is time and resource-intensive, the former exposes medical professionals to a higher risk of contamination and adds operational strain, especially in the long run. Learning from both approaches, CURA strives to be as fast to mount as a hospital tent, but as safe as a hospital’s isolation ward to work in, thanks to biocontainment (an extractor creates indoor negative pressure, complying with the standards of Airborne Infection Isolation Rooms [AIIRs]). It follows the standards for COVID-19 hospitals issued by the Chinese authorities, while speeding up execution.

Each CURA pod would contain all the medical equipment needed for two COVID-19 intensive-care patients, including ventilators and intravenous fluids stands. All units can be connected by an inflatable corridor.

CURA pods are being conceived as a ready-to-use solution. Shipping containers can easily be moved through different modes of transport, from ship to rail to truck, and re-used in different parts of the world, adapting to the needs and capacity of the local healthcare infrastructure.

CURA is developed in an open-source, nonprofit framework and solicits suggestions and improvements.

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