The Army May Have Built Too Many Hospital Beds. And That’s OK, General Says

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Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, 54th Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, 54th Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speaks to contractors at one of three barrier construction sites near Lukeville, Ariz., Sept. 10, 2019. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Carlos Lazo)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has raced to convert buildings and construct field hospitals at a clip that could result in the number of hospital beds exceeding current needs in the fight against the novel coronavirus, but that's OK, Army Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite said Friday.

"If you have hospital beds that never get used, I don't think that's a problem, because you had the ability to take care of the people from your city," Semonite, commander of USACE, said at a Pentagon news conference Friday. "It's a relatively small cost to have the capability to keep people alive. I can't think of a more noble calling for an engineer."

Since taking on the task more than 35 days ago, the Corps and local contractors, working off a standard design for both COVID-19 and non-COVID patients, have put up 28 facilities nationwide with a total capacity of 15,700 beds. Plans are in the works for at least seven more facilities, according to USACE figures.

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"We've also seen where the curve has flattened in certain areas," meaning that the number of new coronavirus cases has dropped off, Semonite said.

As a result, "where maybe a city thought they were going to have a significant bed shortage -- now either they don't see as many new cases or they see they have more time and therefore their available hospitals are able to handle that load," he said.

One area where the demand for new beds has fallen off is Seattle. The Corps had rushed to convert the CenturyLink pro football stadium into a makeshift hospital, but Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that the facility was no longer needed -- before any of the beds were actually used.

The Corps has since packed up the beds and equipment and put them on standby for possible use elsewhere.

"We don't know how this is going to play out. … We don't know if [the virus] is coming back in the fall or not," Semonite said. "So let's make the investment to build it. It's almost like insurance; it's a good reserve" to have the extra beds to guard against a future coronavirus outbreak.

Hospital bed capacity figured in a testy exchange Friday between President Donald Trump and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In a tweet aimed at Cuomo, Trump said, "Get out there and get the job done. We built you thousands of hospital beds that you didn't need or use, gave large numbers of ventilators that you should have had, and helped you with testing that you should be doing."

At a news conference later Friday, Cuomo credited Trump with sending the Corps of Engineers to convert the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a 2,500-bed hospital for non-COVID patients.

The facility has since been converted again into a 1,900-bed hospital for COVID patients. Cuomo said more than 800 patients were being treated there as of Friday.

In rejecting the argument that he had overreacted, the governor pointed to White House backing of projections showing that the death toll from coronavirus in the U.S. could reach 100,000 at the low end.

"They're your projections, Mr. President," Cuomo said. "If we were foolish for listening to you, then shame on us."

There have been encouraging signs over the past week that the upward curve for coronavirus has flattened in New York City, he said, but 2,000 new cases were still being reported daily, and the death toll is at staggering levels.

For the past week, the city's death toll has ranged from 600 to 800 daily, with another 630 deaths recorded in the city Thursday, Cuomo said.

The city's death toll as of midday Friday stood at more than 13,200, or more than one-third of the 36,700 nationwide, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The military's COVID-19 response efforts in New York have shifted from making beds available at the Javits Center and the hospital ship USNS Comfort to sending medical teams directly into city hospitals.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Army North said that more than 530 Army, Navy and Air Force doctors, nurses and medical aides were now working in 10 New York City hospitals to relieve overworked staff.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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