'Never Done a Pandemic Before': Army Corps of Engineers Creating COVID-19 Care Facilities

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, the Javits Center has been transitioned to only serve COVID-19 patients, in order to support New York City hospitals and medical staff.

By Terri Moon Cronk

Like many units in the U.S. military, the Army Corps of Engineers has been busy working on COVID-19-related projects over the past week. But their most important work – transforming buildings into hospitals over the next two to three weeks – is their latest focus.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the Corps of Engineers a mission to plan and conduct site assessments of alternate care facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

The Army Corps of Engineers is providing planning and assessments, in conjunction with state and local partners, for the possible conversion of existing facilities into alternate care facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. | Photo credit DoD

Working to Find a ‘Simplistic Solution’ to a Complicated Problem

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.

“There’s no way we can solve this with a complicated solution,” said Army Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, the commander of the Corps. “We needed a very, very simplistic solution. So, we went in and designed for types of facilities.”

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

Compartmentalized rooms in hotels and dormitories are harder for doctors and nurses to staff without an open area where one of two nurses can see 20 people at once, Semonite said. That’s why most locations want to utilize wider spaces to serve as these makeshift care facilities.

Photo credit DoD

Engineers and contracting specialists from the Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District meet with federal, state and local partners in Santa Clara, Calif., to assess a potential site for an alternate care facility on March 23, 2020.

The Javits Center is probably the best example, he said.

“What is nice about using a permanent facility [like the Javits Center for a temporary care 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.”

‘We’ve Never Done a Pandemic Before’

Semonite noted the Javits Center is just the beginning of this project.

Last week, the Corps was looking at 114 facilities in 50 states and five territories that they’ve assessed, he 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.

Photo credit DoD

Michelle Jellison and Adam Stewart of the Army Corps of Engineers New England District gather data during a site assessment to address possible conversion of existing buildings into alternate care facilities in Rhode Island on March 23, 2020.

“[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.

-This story originally appeared on defense.gov. It has been edited for USO.org.

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