Thousands scurry to build a hospital in Beijing

Complex to house at least 1,000 infected with SARS


BEIJING - As the number of reported SARS infections rose sharply in China's capital yesterday, an army of construction workers rushed to erect a hospital in the northern suburbs to house at least a thousand people who have the highly infectious respiratory illness.

Working nonstop for four days, 4,000 people from this city's biggest construction companies have dug trenches, laid pipe, poured concrete and slapped together siding to create a grid of low-rise shelters that resembles a military encampment.

If they finish the job tonight as scheduled, the hospital will have emerged from a field at a Communist Party resort in less than a week.

"We've been told to get this done fast - no matter what, whatever it costs," said Wang Hui, a crew chief.

State news media said 17 hospitals with 1,800 beds had been emptied of all patients except those with severe acute respiratory syndrome. But even after subtracting the 73 people cured of the disease and the 48 who have died, Beijing has 1,960 suspected or confirmed cases in its hospital system.

It was largely for that reason that Wang Qishan, who became mayor after Meng Xuenong was fired a week ago for covering up the epidemic, gave the construction companies five days to erect the medical complex.

Rooms at the new hospital are just large enough for a bed and a toilet, and they are arranged in rows divided by corridors that circulate fresh air.

In Beijing, authorities ordered managers of factories, restaurants and work sites that employ an estimated 3 million laborers to ask employees not to flee to their home provinces, an exodus that health experts worry could speed the spread of the epidemic.

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