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Homeland Security

Army engineers now eyeing 100-plus sites for COVID-19 response

By Sean Kimmons, Army News Service March 27, 2020

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified over 110 sites across the country it could retrofit to help local hospitals deal with patient overflow amid the COVID-19 outbreak, its commander said Friday.

Army engineers have already assessed the majority of the 114 facilities -- a total number that will steadily increase as the virus spreads nationwide.

"We want to be able to tailor a solution that works best for a given city or a given state," Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite said during a Pentagon press briefing.

Convention center model

In New York, Army engineers are planning to help build nearly 3,000 rooms for non-COVID-19 patients by Monday inside the Javits Conference Center in Manhattan.

While the center was to hold initially 1,000 patients, Army engineers, along with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services, were able to maximize the center's capacity to expand the mission, he said.

Unlike constructing a makeshift hospital on a parking lot, the general said a convention center is a permanent facility that already has electricity, water, fire protection, driveways, partitions, and other features available.

A facility like this also does not require as many contractors to install those features. It can even keep current employees at the center employed during this uncertain time.

"The convention center model is a pretty good model," he said. "We can probably get a little bit more bang for the buck by going into the larger facilities."

He plans to replicate it in other parts of the country, and even retrofit centers to handle patients with COVID-19. A major challenge in such a large building, though, is developing negative-pressure rooms to seal off the virus from other parts of it.

In Chicago, for instance, Army engineers have started to work with their partners to place about 3,000 rooms inside the McCormick Place Convention Center for patients with the virus.

The $75 million project will include self-contained halls that separate patients by the severity of their symptoms. The project is slated to be completed by April 24.

"I did not think we could meet the COVID standard in a massive building, but my engineers are telling me we think we've got the capability to do that," Semonite said.

Since patients will be in open areas inside each hall, medical personnel will be required to wear 100% of personal protective equipment, he added.

Other hotspots

Army engineers have also targeted other hotspots, such as locations on the West Coast.

In Washington, engineers are in talks to secure a large facility in Seattle after the Army ordered the 627th Army Hospital from Fort Carson, Colorado, to deploy there.

In California, the general said they are looking to build nearly 400 rooms in a large facility to possibly handle a mix of non-COVID patients and those with the virus.

Throughout the country, engineers are working with state and city officials to develop the best solution for them as they prepare for a potential uptick in cases.

"We have a very, very narrow window of opportunity," he said. "If we don't leverage that opportunity, we're going to miss it."

Other solutions may involve repurposing vacant hotels and dormitories.

"It's not just the big cities. The small cities are going to have the same exact problem. It's just scale," he said. "It goes back to what is that individual requirement and how do we continue to support them?"

Last week, the general said that USACE had developed a standard design to retrofit facilities into alternate care sites that alleviate bed shortages at nearby hospitals.

"This is when everybody is at max capacity," he said. "We're trying to come in to be able to make sure we build that augmentation capacity to take the stress off."

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