A House committee chair says that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to plan the addition of medical facilities needed to boost capacity requirements stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak, but the Corps says it has not yet received a mission request.

[For ENR’s latest coverage of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here]

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a March 18 statement that he is "glad to see FEMA has asked the ... Corps of Engineers to engage in a national mission to construct emergency medical facilities" in response to the virus outbreak.

DeFazio added, "Our committee will authorize, if necessary, the needed funds to meet the mission."

But a Corps public affairs office statement later in the day said, "At this time, [the agency] has not been assigned a COVID-19 mission."

The statement does say that Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the Corps commander, met on March 18 with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), "to discuss options and the Corps' capabilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic." The Corps adds that Semonite plans to take part in a Pentagon press briefing on March 20, at which "more information may be presented."

Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) have asked the Trump administration for Corps assistance to expand hospital facilities, particularly in critical care. 

In a March 17 letter to President Donald Trump, Murphy asked for Corps help to "expand hospital and intensive care capacity" in the state. He cited Rutgers University statistics that New Jersey faces a "peak" shortfall of up to 313,000 hospital beds between May and October and needs 2,000 critical care beds within the next two weeks.  

Murphy said the state has already tapped its National Guard to assist in reopening closed hospitals and hospital wings, and will meet with the Corps on March 19 to discuss further efforts to expand capacity.

Cuomo, in a March 15 op-ed piece in the New York Times, said the White House should call on the Corps to help provide additional hospital capacity.

In the article, which took the form of a letter to Trump, Cuomo wrote, "States cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough."

He added: "At this point, our best hope is to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities—like military bases or college dormitories—to serve as temporary medical centers. Then we can designate existing hospital beds for the acutely ill.

At a March 18 briefing, Murphy said the state now has 427 COVID-19 cases, noting a recent spike, with five deaths. New York reported close to 3,000 cases statewide and 25 deaths.

Cuomo has announced that all businesses must have at least 50% of their employees working from home, except for those providing "essential services," although he stopped short of issuing a shelter-in-place edict.

Murphy announced  a ban on any gatherings of more than 50 people, has closed all schools from pre-K to universities in the state and announced a voluntary 8 p.m.-5 a.m.curfew.

In a March 17 statement emailed to ENR from the Corps public affairs office, the Corps said it is aware of Cuomo's request and "is prepared to assist the nation in a time of crisis to the very best of its capabilities, and we are postured to lean forward when an official request is received through the Dept. of Defense."