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COVID-19: Army ‘Running Out Of Time’ To Start New Hospitals « Breaking Defense

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The Army Corps of Engineers is converting 17 sites nationwide into hospitals, with a total of 14,630 beds.

WASHINGTON: “We’re beginning to run out of time,” the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers told reporters this afternoon. The Corps has contractors urgently at work turning stadiums, hotels, and other sites across the nation into hospitals, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite said, but there are even more projects awaiting approval. Mayors and governors must get back to the Corps soon with the green light so they can start building those sites, he warned, or they probably won’t get built in time to save lives when the coronavirus pandemic peaks and existing hospitals are overrun.

“What we used to have is a month to build this, and maybe a week or two for a mayor to make a decision,” Semonite said. But now, he said, “I think we will done starting new builds, probably, in a week. Now that depends on what the curve is… This virus gets a vote.”

As of today, 17 projects are in various stages of construction, providing a total of 14,630 beds. Some 12,570 of those beds will be able to handle COVID-19 cases, since those require oxygen, negative pressure containment and other special measures. That’s a much higher percentage of COVID-rated beds than the Corps had planned. The original idea was to take non-COVID patients out of the existing hospitals and let them focus on the pandemic, but that proved impractical because one infected patient at a non-COVID-capable facility might shut it down.

Another 23 projects, totaling 8,571 beds, are still awaiting approval, Semonite said, and “we’ve only got a couple of days left to be able to turn [those] on and still get it done in time.”

“Some of those will go. Some of those probably will not,” he said. “This is really a local decision and we will support whatever the city wants and whatever FEMA authorizes.”

Now, the general said, not every site on the “pending” list actually needs to get built. Some cities and states have told the Army they already have enough hospital beds to handle their forecast of the peak. The governor of Florida, for instance, decided that a single 450-bed facility – with an option to double it to 900 – was all his state needed the Corps to build for them, and that only as a backup to what Florida is constructing for itself.

Other places are building new facilities on their own, without federal involvement: Semonite is aware of 17 facilities, totalling 5,869 beds, that his staff surveyed and drew up plans for, but that states or cities are building without the Corps. There are other local projects that no one’s told the Army about yet. Semonite’s staff is regularly quizzing local authorities about their plans and whether they might need help from the Corps.

“Sometimes we are favorably impressed, where there actually is a great plan,” he said, “but I still lay awake at night worrying about a couple of places.”

Naturally, he declined to name them.





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