Tufts University President Tony Monaco has been hosting rather grim online seminars virtually, advising other college leaders across the country on how they can leverage their resources to lower the infection and death rate of COVID-19.

“We’ve all seen the scenes from Italy where they’ve had to use makeshift tents, hallways and parking lots during the surge,” Monaco said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Tufts isn’t just giving PowerPoint presentations on Zoom, though. The school is leading by example, preparing to open its dorms to as many as 1,600 beds to medical professionals, first responders and recovering COVID-19 patients healthy enough to be out of the hospital, but not well enough to go home. “Those are the three main areas that we are hoping to fulfill very soon,” Monaco told WGBH News.

Tufts in Medford isn’t the only college in the Boston area offering its empty residence halls. The state has 20,000 hospital beds, but more than 160,000 dorm beds could be tapped as a backup.

Colleges in the Fenway, including Simmons University, Emmanuel College, Wentworth Institute of Technology and MassArt, say they’ll take in health care workers from the nearby Longwood medical area. Northeastern University and Boston University are making hundreds of beds available for police, EMTs and staff who serve people who are homeless. Northeastern is near police headquarters in Roxbury.

On the North Shore, Salem State is offering its residence halls and gymnasium during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have the space, and our doors are open,” said President John Keenan in a statement. “We want to do our part to serve the community in any way that we can.”

Downtown, Suffolk University is repurposing at least 170 beds to help reduce congestion in Boston’s homeless shelters. In Cambridge, Harvard and MIT are donating $500,000 to that city’s temporary homeless shelter at the Rindge & Latin School.

A cleaning crew cleans and disinfects the West Village E dormitory at Northeastern University in Boston on April 11, 2020.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

Colleges say the space will be available whenever cities and hospitals need them.

“We will need it probably in the next few days,” said Dr. Assaad Sayah, CEO of Cambridge Health Alliance, which has signed a contract with Tufts.

“We don’t have the same depth and breadth and resources as some of the major Boston teaching hospitals,” said Sayah, who also serves as public health commissioner of Cambridge.

Sayah said his hospitals are already treating more than 100 COVID-19 positive or presumed positive patients. At least 20 of them are in critical care; the hospital network only has a total of 13 beds in intensive care units.

On the Tufts campus, he said, the limiting factor will be how many beds the hospital alliance can staff.

“We’re going to be putting patients there that are not very critical," he said. “So the level of staffing at that facility is going to be a bit less than what we usually staff.”

Cambridge Health Alliance expects to treat as many as 150 patients on the Medford campus.

“We are in a hot spot,” Sayah said. “The numbers of sick patients that we are seeing is probably higher than most other areas in the whole state.”

Under the contract, no money will exchange hands. Hospitals and the cities will cover expenses like cleaning and dining services, and the university will pay for things like electricity, water and WiFi.

One issue is the health of students, faculty and staff. Tufts has about 200 students living in one dorm located on the other side of campus.

Barbara Stein, vice president of operations at Tufts, said at first, facilities and custodial staff raised safety concerns, but the university reassured them they won’t be working in these buildings and patients won’t be walking around outside.

A sign welcomes first responders to the West Village E dorm at Northeastern University in Boston on April 11, 2020.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

“Everyone understands it’s the right thing to do,” Stein said. “Yes, there are some concerns, but I don’t think they’re show-stoppers.”

Providing temporary housing for frontline workers, Monaco said, can eliminate the biggest risk to their otherwise socially isolated families.

“Housing high-risk exposed medical personnel and first responders is a very effective way right now of helping to stop the spread and helping those workers feel that they can do their jobs without putting their families at risk,” he said.

Looking forward, Monaco can’t say whether these dorms will be available to students in August and whether the campus will reopen next semester.

“I’m not confident right now of what will happen in the fall,” he said. “We’re planning for both scenarios.”

What’s clear, Monaco said, is colleges that offer their dorms should have an exit strategy and give themselves enough time to make sure rooms are sanitized.