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Army Corps Of Engineers Called To Help Relieve Pressure On Hospitals

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying to help ease the pressure on hospitals, and so they're converting arenas, hotels, dorms and even empty fields into temporary hospitals. That should add more than 15,000 hospital beds across the country. The person leading this effort is Lieutenant General Todd Semonite. He commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Good morning, sir.

TODD SEMONITE: Hey, Noel. Thanks so much for having us on. I just want you and your listeners to understand that the thoughts and prayers of all of us in the Corps go out to all of those people that have been affected by this terrible virus. And we're just so proud to be part of this team to be able to help mitigate this bed shortage.

KING: Thank you for saying that. That's really nice to hear. I understand you've gotten a lot of requests for help. Where are you focusing your efforts right now?

SEMONITE: We have gotten over 1,000 different requests.

KING: Wow.

SEMONITE: What we do is we go into different cities. And again, we're actually working for FEMA here as FEMA's engineer. But we'll go into small, large - doesn't make any difference. And when the mayor or the governor asks us to do an assessment, we will look at those facilities like you talked about - an existing facility.

When we were first asked 3 1/2 weeks ago by Governor Cuomo, they wanted us to build hotels. You can't build a hotel in three weeks. So what we said was, let's go into an existing facility - a large field house, a convention center, a hotel - that already has codes - it's got all the fire; it's got electricity; it's got all the other infrastructure there - and then build a ICU-like capability inside of an existing facility. We've actually done a lot of work in New York. We've just finished up a big build in Detroit - almost a thousand; 3,000 beds in Chicago. Two days ago, I was in Miami working a big build in Florida. And we continue to build in Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, all over the United States.

KING: So you're all over the place. I want to ask you about one of the temporary hospitals that the Corps built at the Javits Center in New York City. So there's been these reports that there are almost 2,000 beds but there's only a few dozen patients. How do you know whether you're putting your resources into the right place? Or is that really not your job - you leave that to the city or the area, you just do the build?

SEMONITE: So it's a little bit of both. We do do the build. I kind of equate this to a three-legged stool with three S's. The first S has to be the site. Where are those facilities that we actually be able to have the beds that are there? The second one is the supplies - a lot of discussion in the last couple of weeks on all the different supplies that then would go into that facility. And then the third one is the staff. We are really that first S. And we take almost our entire lead from that mayor or that governor. They have to kind of assess - what is my requirement?

And then here's the other critical part - we have to model this to be able to say, where are these curves actually going to have the maximum demand? And that allows us to understand the amount of time we have to actually build a facility. And every single city is different. Some of them are almost at their peak right now. Some of these are actually moving to the right. Where we thought it might be to the end of April, now we're seeing some of these curves in the middle of May. Now, that gives us a little bit more time, but the bottom line is we follow our lead from the city, mayor or the governor.

KING: OK. That's interesting. Just like everyone else, you guys are looking at the math and the models. How widespread is the - are the requests? How many requests are in right now for you guys to come in and build something?

SEMONITE: So right now, we're actually building 20 different facilities. And it's actually gone up since your lead-in. We're at about 16,000 bed spaces right now. In the next 96 hours, we think that we'll make about - decisions on about 17 more. That'll bring about another thousand in. And here's the beauty of the idea. The beauty is, when President Trump told us to go help out on this and FEMA gave us this direction, we came up with a standard design. And we then made sure that design was right.

But then we've leveraged that design back out to states and local entities. They don't have to use the Corps. So it goes back into about - the states have put about 20 facilities in for about 7,000 people. And the most important thing is, we don't have to be - we can't take this for whatever amount of time we want; we've got to be able to have this just exactly on time with a mission-essential requirement.

KING: How many people from the Army Corps of Engineers are working on this?

SEMONITE: We've got about 15,000 fully engaged all around the United States. And there's phenomenal leaders and great civilians that are working for me to be able to make this happen.

KING: Lieutenant General Todd Semonite of the Army Corps of Engineers. Thank you so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

SEMONITE: Thanks for having us on, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.