The Army Corps of Engineers is working with governors of more than a dozen states on plans to convert hotels, college dormitories and other facilities into “ICU-like” hospital rooms to help with the increasing number of patients needing treatment from the coronavirus, the Corps commander says.

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Lt. Gen Todd Semonite, the Corps' commanding general and Army Chief of Engineers, said in a March 20 press briefing at the Pentagon that his organization is working with governors in 13 states and hoped to reach five more by the end of the day. In all, he said, the Corps is looking at adding more than 10,000 beds.

On March 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that he had approved Corps recommended locating four temporary hospitals at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, the Westchester Convention Center in White Plains, and State University of New York Stony Brook and Old Westbury campuses on Long Island, following Corps inspections.

The Corps is expected to begin work immediately to construct the temporary hospitals, according to Cuomo's office. The Governor is also requesting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency designate four field hospitals with 250 beds each for the state, intended for use in the Javits Center in addition to the temporary hospital the Corps will build.

(View full U.S. Army 3/20/2020 press conference here. Semonite's comments start at about the 12:45 mark.)

The Corps is working under a mission assignment from FEMA, which is responding to requests from the states.

Semonite said of the conversion task, “This is an unbelievably complicated problem and there’s no way we’re going to be able to do this with a complicated solution.” He added, “We need something super-simple.” For more on private industry efforts to make more bed space, see this story.

He said that the concept the Corps will use is a standard design, which he said had been reviewed and validated by the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

“What we want to do is go through existing facilities, primarily,” Semonite said, such as hotels, college dormitories, “and perhaps large spaces.” He noted, “These hotels are empty.”

He said that under the plan, the Corps would issue a contract to have the state set up a lease for the facility and in an “exceptionally short” number of days, “We would go in and turn this into an ICU-like facility.”

Semonite said there would be four phases. First, a state would “nominate” particular buildings, ranked in priority order, as conversion candidates.

Second, the Corps would revamp the facility into hospital-type space. For example, nurses’ stations would be built in a hotel's halls.

One key element would be to change the air pressure in hotel or dorm rooms to “negative pressure,” to guard against the spread of infection.

The third step would be to outfit the rooms with hospital supplies; fourth would be staffing the facility, which Semonite said “has to be a state job.”

New York state appears to be first in line for the conversions. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), in a March 17 New York Times op-ed piece, had called on President Trump to get the Corps involved in adding more hospital capacity.

Semonite said, “We want to use New York as the standard-setter.”

Semonite added that on March 20 in New York, “My engineers were walking through 10 other buildings,” including five hotel-type buildings and some with “open spaces.” A central goal is “to continue to figure out, what does ‘right’ look like.”

As for other states, he said, “We’re looking very hard at California [and] the state of Washington.” Semonite also said Corps personnel have been in New Jersey. He added, “We’re really looking at, where’s the biggest demand, so we go to those states first.”

Regarding the time frame for the process, he said, “This has to be weeks. This can’t be months.” He added, “We’d like to think that we can do this in three to four weeks and try to go as fast as we can.”

The Corps plans to use a standard contract to carry out the renovations and is designing the documents now. The agency also has talking to industry as it develops the formats.

“We need our engineering contractors to be able to step up,” and the hotel industry, too, Semonite says.

He said the Corps would like to be able to turn over its standard contracts to the states, which could then award the work. A significant role for some state agencies could free up the Corps to help other states.

Story updated on 3/22/20 with information from New York Gov. Cuomo.