//The US Army Corps of Engineers Deploys Against Coronavirus

The US Army Corps of Engineers Deploys Against Coronavirus

“This is an unbelievably complicated problem, and there’s no way we’re going to be able to do this with a complicated solution,” Lieutenant General Todd Semonite said in a briefing last week. “We need something super simple.”

That simplicity belies the incredible logistical efficiency required to go from design to construction, from the USACE, state governments, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which funds the efforts and helps prioritize where to send the Corps. Take the timeline of New York, as described by Lt. Gen. Semonite and Cuomo’s office. FEMA approved the funds to identify and refit the sites last Tuesday. That Thursday, a USACE inspection team and New York state officials toured Javits and some State University of New York dorms. By the end of the week, they’d hit 10 more potential sites, and narrowed down the group to four viable candidates for field hospitals on Saturday. On Monday, the Javits conversion was already well underway. It should be finished sometime next week.

“This was never an anticipated use, but you do what you have to do,” Cuomo said at a press conference at Javits Monday. “That’s the New York way, that’s the American way.”

A map of the temporary FEMA hospital arrangement is seen inside the Jacob Javits Center
The USACE has created standard plans that allow contractors to convert any convention space, or hotel or dorm, into makeshift hospitals in a matter of days.Photograph: Ron Adar/Getty Images

Each of the four hospitals that will occupy Javits will take up about 40,000 square feet on the main showroom floor. Together, the hospitals will provide 1,000 beds, staffed by 320 federal workers total. The USACE is also working on a separate facility at Javits that can support an additional 1,000 beds. The Westchester Convention Center will get a similar large-space makeover. But it’s the dorm locations, at SUNY Stony Brook and SUNY Old Westbury, that will follow the template the USACE hopes to replicate more broadly. Like most higher learning institutions, the SUNY campuses are closed for the remainder of the semester.

“Think of the second floor of a standard hotel,” Semonite said at last week’s briefing. “The rooms would be like a hotel room, and then we would build nurse’s stations in the halls, we would have all of the equipment, wireless, going into the nurses stations so you could monitor.”

Hotels and dorms are the preferred sites for these kinds of conversions not only because they’re largely empty at the moment. They also often have self-contained air conditioning units, which you can adjust to create negative pressure inside the room, a measure taken in hospitals to reduce the chances of cross-contamination. “You adjust that unit to be able to suck more air out down through the bathroom vent to be able to have negative pressure,” said Semonite. “On the door you put a great big piece of plastic with a zipper on it so you can zip in, go into the room. It’s a relatively simple process.”