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The Army Corps of Engineers Deploys Against Coronavirus


The Jacob K. Javits Center occupies over 22 million square feet on the west side of New York City, a block or so down from where the Lincoln Tunnel splashes into the Hudson River. This week, it had been scheduled to host the World Floral Expo until coronavirus fears scuttled those and most other nonessential plans. Instead, thanks to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the convention center is being transformed into four field hospitals with 1,000 total beds. And that’s only the beginning.

Since its founding in 1802, the USACE has often played a central role in times of crisis; its mission is to provide engineering services that strengthen national security and reduce risks from disasters. Recently, that has meant stepping in to speed recovery after the attacks of 9/11 and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The novel coronavirus presents a different kind of challenge. It requires national mobilization, not the localized efforts that those specific traumas demanded. Rather than responding to a disaster, the USACE is racing to help avert one by providing enough hospital beds to keep the health care system afloat.

“I’ve never seen anything as unique as this in my lifetime,” says Fletcher Griffis, a professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering who spent decades in the USACE, including as commander and chief engineer in the New York district. For parallels to the scale and scope of the Corps’ coronavirus mission, Griffis reaches back to World War II, and even further to helping map out the railroads that drove westward expansion in the 1800s.

The stakes are impossibly high. Take New York City, the current epicenter of the coronavirus in America and also the locus of the USACE’s efforts. New York governor Andrew Cuomo estimated Tuesday that the state would need 140,000 hospital beds to care for the incoming wave of Covid-19 patients, with an apex coming within 14 to 21 days. There are 53,000 beds under normal circumstances. Cuomo has ordered hospitals to increase capacity by 50 percent, and more if they’re able, but that still leaves a shortfall. Enter the USACE.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo toured construction of temporary hospital space at the Javitz Center this week.Photograph: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Specifically, enter a standardized design, created by the Corps, that with a few site-specific modifications can turn any hotel or dorm space—or convention center—into a makeshift hospital. The USACE has created a model that can be replicated in any city in the country, quickly.

“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.”



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