Race to build temporary hospitals nationwide as coronavirus spreads

Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at 114 facilities in all 50 states to convert into potential temporary hospitals in an effort to increase the nation’s hospital capacity in preparation for an expected influx of hundreds of thousands of coronavirus patients.

"I would think that the 114 is going to keep going up by 20 or 30 every single day," said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Semonite said Friday afternoon he is particularly “concerned” about the virus rapidly spreading to other areas of the country as the number of infections in the United States topped 100,000 Friday. He also announced he is planning to convert Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center into a makeshift hospital to treat 3,000 Covid-19 patients by April 24, at a cost of $75 million.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, USACE Commanding General, surveys the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York Thursday.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, USACE Commanding General, surveys the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York Thursday. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - which is working against the clock to convert existing convention centers, dorms, and hotels into functioning hospitals for both COVID-19 and non COVID-19 patients before the outbreak reaches its peak and overwhelms hospitals nationwide.

“We’ve never done a pandemic capability. We don’t have on the shelf designs on how to modify hotels into COVID centers,” Semonite told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Friday. “We are cutting contracts every night to be able to get contractors to be able to come to facilities.”

On Monday, the largest temporary hospital yet built will open in New York City to non-COVID-19 patients. The Javits Convention Center is now a 2,900-bed hospital, each bed separated by curtains and divided into 10 x 10 foot cubicles. The space is equipped with nurses' stations and engineers are adding showers.

New York state is currently ground zero for coronavirus in the U.S. The state has 53,000 hospital beds but officials project they will need 140,000 at the height of the crisis in three weeks' time.

“We have a very narrow window of opportunity and if we don’t meet it we will miss out,” Semonite told Fox News. “It’s not a question of, 'How long do I need?' It’s 'How long do I have?'”

The Javits conversion is one of four temporary hospitals that will open in the New York area within the next two weeks. Three other locations include dormitories at two State University of New York campuses on Long Island.

The rooms are singularly ventilated, allowing COVID-19 patients to be in controlled and pressurized environments.

“We would go in and bring down the pressure 2 or 3 [pounds per square inch],” Lt. General Semonite explained. “Then on the door we would put on a great big plastic - with a zipper - and you’d walk into a controlled room.”

Wireless equipment will allow for each hotel or dorm room to be monitored remotely by nurses, cutting back on the number of personnel needed and limiting the risk of contamination.

New York is the test model for the Corps of Engineers, who are communicating with at least 21 engineer planning teams in other states that have not yet been as heavily impacted by COVID-19.

“We’re learning things every single day,” Semonite told Fox News outside the Javits Center Friday. “When the New York engineers learn how to do a different configuration, we’re then exporting that right away to my team in Washington D.C. and they’re pushing that out to California, Washington and Florida.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday he has asked President Trump to approve the construction of four more temporary hospitals. The governor said he wants to have a 1,000+ bed facility in every New York City borough and in the hardest-hit surrounding counties of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester.

In other words, Cuomo is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to equip the state with 8,000 temporary hospital beds in eight locations by the end of April.

On Friday, Governor Cuomo scouted the newly proposed temporary hospital sites at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, CUNY Staten Island, and the New York Expo Center in the Bronx.

“We’re also looking at hotels and nursing homes,” Cuomo said. “We’re looking far and wide, [being] very creative, aggressive and finding all the space that we can possibly find.”

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE

An additional 1,000 hospital beds for non-COVID-19 patients is arriving in New York Harbor on Monday. The Navy hospital ship, USNS Comfort, has 12 operating rooms and 1,200 medical personnel.

The U.S. Army has sent roughly 650 medical personnel from two field hospitals to New York City to replenish the first responder ranks - battling the invisible contagion.

“This is a rescue mission you’re on,” Cuomo told a contingency of National Guard troops inside the Javits Center. “The mission is to save lives, that’s what you’re doing.”