Cuomo calls for construction of field hospitals to combat coronavirus crisis

"You could have people on gurneys in (hospital) hallways,' Cuomo warned.

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By Courtney Kube, Allan Smith and Corky Siemaszko

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on President Donald Trump on Monday to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to start erecting field hospitals to contend with the spreading coronavirus crisis.

“It’s only a matter of time before our state’s ICU beds fill up,” Cuomo tweeted, referring to hospital intensive care units. “The federal government must act.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has “tremendous capacity,” Cuomo said at a news conference.

“This is what they do, this is what they do,” he said, adding, “They build hospitals.”

Cuomo conceded that building a hospital is a “very elaborate, extensive, expensive undertaking.”

So, he urged Trump to deploy the Corps “to come with the states to build temporary medical facilities.”

“Get us backup beds so when the hospital is overwhelmed, we can have some of the people who are in hospital beds go to a backup facility,” he said. “It makes all the sense in the world. And if you don’t, you know what is going to happen. You’re going to overwhelm the hospitals.”

Cuomo warned “you could have people on gurneys in hallways”

“That is what is going to happen if we do nothing,” he said.

Trump said Monday afternoon that, "we're looking into it very strongly." NBC News has confirmed that the Corps has not received any request to start building field hospitals.

The Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency could all request the Corps' help in setting up field clinics, a Defense Department official told NBC News. The agencies would lay out the exact scope of medical requirements.

China has already shown that a hospital can be erected in no time. Outside the city of Wuhan, a city of 11 million where the pandemic is believed to have begun, some 7,000 laborers working around the clock built a 1,000-bed hospital specifically for coronavirus patients in just 10 days.

But it is extremely unlikely the Corps would be called on to build a new hospital from the ground up, the official said.

Instead, the Corps would probably begin converting an existing building into a clinic capable of handling coronavirus patients, the official said.

Military logistics experts noted that the Army Corps of Engineers also played a significant role in the nation’s responses to both Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

“I do think that the Army Corps will be involved in the construction of field hospitals to extend or expand the capacity of hospital beds around the country, especially if we look at some of the projected numbers of casualties by the summer,” said Ryan Burke, who served as a captain and logistics officer in the Marines and is now an associate professor in the Department of Military & Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Dr. Mike Doubler, who has written a history of the National Guard, said that after the 9/11 attacks the Guard created teams that specialize in dealing with chemical or biological hazards. He said those teams will be pressed into the battle against the coronavirus.

“This is kind of an unprecedented situation,” Doubler told NBC News. “But there is a template for what they can or can’t do.”

Members of the guard will also be called on to provide logistical and medical support. And while they won’t have the power to make arrests, they will help provide security at key postings.

“They go do the jobs that frees up the local police and state troopers to do theirs,” said Doubler.

The Corps has tackled epidemics before.

In 2014, members were deployed to West Africa to help stop the spread of Ebola. Among other things, teams of engineers worked with the Liberian government to construct Ebola treatment units and base camps for medical workers. The Corps has a wealth of engineering, planning, surveying, and power generation skills.

Currently, the U.S. has roughly 924,100 hospital beds, according to a 2018 American Hospital Association Survey.

But many of those beds are already occupied by patients, the association warned.

There are also 46,800 to 64,000 ICU beds available and an additional 51,000 ICU beds reserved for patients with severe burns or heart problems, as well as infants and children.

In a report released last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security calculated that a pandemic would mean 1 million people needing to be hospitalized and up to 200,000 more needing intensive care. A severe pandemic could mean 9.6 million hospitalizations and 2.9 million people needing intensive care, the center said.

All 50 states have declared emergencies, meaning that they now have the authority to call up the National Guard. But so far, the governors of just 16 states have activated more than 1,670 members of the Guard.

In Maryland, the governor Monday ordered the deployment of 1,000 members of the Guard. In New York, 516 members of the Guard have already been deployed.

“The National Guard is fully involved at the local, state and federal level in the planning and execution of the nation’s response to COVID-19,” the National Guard Bureau said.

Members of the guard are currently “training personnel on COVID-19 response, identifying and preparing National Guard facilities for use as isolation housing, and compiling state medical supply inventories.”

They are also engaged in a lot of necessary but hardly glamorous grunt work like driving health care providers around, collecting and delivering samples, delivering food and other supplies, cleaning and disinfecting common areas, and providing security at drive-thru testing areas and emergency operations centers.