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As field hospital requests skyrocket, military shifts some for coronavirus patients

Texas Army National Guardsmen unpack crates of supplies Tuesday as they set up a field hospital at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in case local hospitals become overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. [Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS]

The number of requests made by cities to the Army Corps of Engineers for field hospitals skyrocketed this week to 750 from 114, as states brace for an expected wave of coronavirus cases in the next three weeks, the chief engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers said Friday.

The Corps knows time is running short, with an expected peak to hit in some cities in the next three weeks, roughly the time it takes to stand up a field hospital, Army Corps of Engineers chief engineer Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite told reporters at the Pentagon. He expressed confidence that the service could address those community requests.

Field hospitals being built at CenturyLink field in Seattle and the Sleep Train Arena in Washington state are almost finished. The Corps provided the design and the city managed the building, he said.

“I want to reassure every community, whether a large city or a small town, if your mayor or your governor needs to be able to have the Corps of Engineers come in to be able to do an assessment of a site, we have the depth and the capacity to be able to do that,” Semonite said. “We are not resource constrained right now. We want to stay ahead of this.”

The Corps has already sent out teams to work on more than 600 of the 750 requests, he said.

As of Friday, there were 266,671 cases and 6,921 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As the coronavirus cases have risen, the Department of Defense has also begun rethinking its policy of treating only noncoronavirus patients.

The initial plan was for military medics aboard the Navy’s two hospital ships, the Comfort and Mercy, and in military field hospitals, to only treat noncoronavirus cases in order to free up bed space in local hospitals for COVID-19 patients.

But there hasn’t been an overflow of patients so far to the military-run facilities, partly because of bureaucratic hurdles, such as in New York where trauma patients in ambulances were initially taken to a local hospital first. Now they will be taken directly to the Comfort, said Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

Also, the total number of trauma incidents, such as from car accidents, has fallen as New Yorkers shelter in place. “The number of patients has gone down,” Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases across the United States has rapidly risen, and there may be greater need for the lifesaving equipment at the military facilities to be used on COVID-19 patients.

Between the Mercy, Comfort and a large military field hospital under construction at CenturyLink in Seattle, for example, there will be 180 ventilators on hand for emergencies, such as for someone having a heart attack. None of those units will be used to treat coronavirus patients unless a decision is made to open the facilities to treating COVID-19 cases.

“We’re reassessing that now,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said on Fox News. “And the secretary of defense is making a risk assessment to determine whether or not we should take on all COVID patients to relieve some of the local hospitals.”

For now, decisions on whether to convert military treatment facilities to accept coronavirus patients is being made on a case-by-case basis.

The Pentagon announced on Friday that it would convert the field hospital established at New York’s Javits events center to treat COVID-19 patients, and would do the same for facilities in Dallas and New Orleans.

Hoffman said the Pentagon was still assessing whether any other field hospital sites, such as the CenturyLink field hospital or the Sleep Train Arena field hospital under construction in Sacramento, would be converted for coronavirus patients.

Hoffman said that one of the concerns about allowing COVID-19 patients on the Comfort, now in New York, or the Mercy in Los Angeles, was that it could limit the ships from quickly moving on to other cities.

“So maybe the Comfort or Mercy are needed somewhere else. Maybe they are needed in Miami or New Orleans,” Hoffman said. “If we open it up to COVID patients, the likelihood of infection to the doctors goes up. We’re aware of that risk and taking it into account. The likelihood of having to empty that ship at some point and do a deep cleaning that could take days goes up.”

Semonite said he also thought Florida would be a likely next hot spot needing additional military coronavirus help, due to the elderly population in that state.

“I am personally worried about Florida, only because obviously there’s an age issue here to a degree,” he said. The Corps is on the ground in Florida assessing several sites, but he would not identify them, saying it was too early in the process.


© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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