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U.S. Department of Defense

March 27, 2020
By Terri Moon Cronk

Army Corps of Engineers Creates Alternative Care Facilities

Though the Army Corps of Engineers has done important work in the past seven days related to the coronavirus pandemic, transforming buildings into hospitals in the next two to three weeks is more important, the commander of the Corps said.

Army Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite called it a "very complicated situation" during a Pentagon news conference today.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave the Corps of Engineers a mission assignment for planning and site assessments of alternate care facilities in response to the COVID-19 virus.

"As I've been saying all week, there's no way we can solve this with a complicated solution," the general said. "We needed a very, very simplistic solution. So we went in and designed four types of facilities."

Compartmentalized rooms in hotels and dormitories are harder for doctors and nurses to staff without an open area where one or two nurses can see 20 people at once, he said. "But what we're seeing in the last week is most of the cities in the states want to go to a wider area, where they can have more people in a population, … probably 30 or 40, in kind of a node," he said.

When he spoke to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the past week, Semonite said, the governor told him one building is needed. "By the end of the day, we probably need three buildings by tomorrow night. We need seven or eight buildings," the general said.

New York's Javits Center, a convention venue, is one such facility-turned-hospital.

The Corps of Engineers is working side by side with FEMA, the Department of Health and Human Services and local governments, the general said, stressing that it's a team effort that involves talking with mayors and state officials to determine what works best for each area.

The Corps wants to be able to tailor a solution that works best for a given city or a given state, he explained.

The Javits Center is probably the best example, Semonite said. "What is nice about using a permanent facility is that you have all the infrastructures there. … We're going into these facilities that already have electricity. They already have water. They have all the fire protection. They have all of the driveways open. They have all the capability they need. ... The Javits Center is an amazing facility."

Semonite said every 10 feet in a convention center, there's a big steel door, cold water, hot water and a place for sewers. "So you can actually do things like sinks right in the middle of a convention center," he said.

The whole-of-government COVID-19 response includes the FEMA hospitals and HHS doctors, the general said. "And [Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper] has sent Army field hospitals to be able to augment the staff, so the whole team is working side by side."

Today, the Corps is looking at 114 facilities in 50 states and five territories that they've assessed, Semonite said.

"We've already got contracts, and we're cutting contracts every night to be able to get contractors to be able to come into the facilities," he told reporters. "[And] I want to continue to stress [the] standard design validated by the federal government, which is then passed down through states and cities to sites."

It's a new experience for the Corps of Engineers, Semonite noted. "We've never done a pandemic before," he said.

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