Defense Media Network

Rapid COVID-19 Response in the High Desert [Building Strong® 2020-2021]

By Albuquerque District

In the early months of 2020, the nation was upended by an unforeseen threat. While Americans across the country were leaning into the new year — new opportunities, goals, and plans — a new and highly contagious coronavirus, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, was rapidly making its way from China to the United States.

It came quickly, jolting the population into a state of uncertainty. Store shelves were being cleaned out. Images of hospital patients struggling to survive while hooked up to ventilators flooded our news networks. Depending on where in the country you were, it seemed as though the virus itself was spreading faster than information about the virus was becoming available. In such an uncertain time, the nation’s leadership, medical professionals, and American families agreed that one thing was indeed certain: We could not allow hospitals to become overwhelmed.

The White House called upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to begin constructing facilities across the country that would create bed space by the thousands and serve as the foundation for an incredible surge of medical capacity. Districts throughout USACE mobilized rapidly to sync with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its respective state leaders to assess possible locations for alternate care facilities (ACFs).

USACE personnel conduct the final construction walkthrough of an alternate care facility constructed by USACE’s Albuquerque District in support of New Mexico’s COVID-19 response at the Miyamura High School in Gallup, New Mexico, April 21, 2020. (U.S. Army Photo by Justin Graff, USACE Albuquerque District Public Affairs)

The Albuquerque District was tasked with leading the USACE rapid COVID-19 response mission in New Mexico and for the Navajo Nation, building a total of four ACFs in less than 30 days.

Lt. Col. Robin Scott conducts the final construction walkthrough of an alternate care facility at the Miyamura High School in Gallup, New Mexico, constructed by USACE’s Albuquerque District in support of New Mexico’s COVID-19 response, April 21, 2020.


The Albuquerque District began assessing possible ACF locations March 20, and completed 12 site assessments across New Mexico after only one week. Assessments were conducted at Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Gallup, Farmington, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. Each assessment included looking at electrical power capabilities, plumbing, physical space, computer network capabilities, health care-to-worker line of sight, proximity to primary hospitals, and other factors for determining a suitable ACF location.

“We wanted to be proactive and get as much data as we could early,” said Lt. Col. Robin Scott, Albuquerque District deputy commander and USACE COVID Response Task Force commander for New Mexico.

“Ultimately it’s on the state leadership to decide where they want these facilities to be built, and they have to work that through FEMA, who will then give us the mission assignment to start building,” Scott said. “We want to make sure the governor and the COVID response committee have as much information as possible to help [with] their decisions and make sure they aren’t waiting on us at all.”

The first ACF mission assignment was for a 200-bed-space renovation at the Gibson Medical Center, previously the Lovelace Hospital, in Albuquerque. Upon receiving the mission assignment from FEMA, the district’s real estate lawyers, contract specialists, and engineers went to work to secure a lease for the space and get contractors in the building.

The $4.1 million project was completed in only 14 days, with contractors working around the clock in shifts to create space for 200 patient beds. It proved to be the most challenging project for the Albuquerque District during the COVID-19 response mission,  because the existing DISTRICT structure had been shuttered since 2007. There was unexpected “rusting and rotting” in the plumbing, according to the contractor. Additionally, the HVAC required retrofitting to accomplish negative pressure in the patient care areas.

Any sort of work you do on a building that is shuttered is going to be a challenge,” Scott said. “We were fortunate to have a great contractor and subcontractors working on the site. The project needed to be completed on time, and we were able to do that.”

The second FEMA mission assignment was for a 60-bed ACF at Miyamura High School in Gallup, New Mexico. While the state, at the time, wasn’t being hit particularly hard by COVID-19, the Navajo Nation was seeing a high infection rate. Gallup is located in the northwest corner of the state, closely neighboring the Navajo Nation.

Unlike the complex retrofitting underway at the Gibson Medical Center in Albuquerque, the Miyamura High School project utilized a more straightforward “arena-to-health care” concept. The school’s gymnasium already maintained negative air pressure, and its open layout made designing the bed spaces much simpler. Copper pipes were run along the gym’s roof to supply oxygen down to a grid of neatly organized temporary room spaces constructed on the gym floor. The medical oxygen is supplied by a massive refillable tank installed just outside of the building.

Contractors work to convert space in Miyamura High School into an alternate care facility in Gallup, New Mexico, installing distributed oxygen lines and other infrastructure. (U.S. Army Photo by Justin Graff, USACE Albuquerque District Public Affairs)

Like the Gibson Medical Center project, the Miyamura High School project was completed in only 14 days, and cost $2.5 million.

“We came up with a very aggressive timeline for these,” Scott said. “The project teams, the contractors, everybody is moving as fast as possible to support the people of New Mexico. We have to be ready when we are called on, and I’m grateful that everyone is putting so much effort into [meeting] the requirement.”


The Navajo Nation faced unique challenges as COVID-19 surged across the country. With limited medical capacity and vast geographical space between some of the population and hospitals, additional patient space was badly needed. The Albuquerque District project teams were in the middle of two ACF projects in New Mexico — Gibson Medical Center and Miyamura High School — when leadership proactively met with Navajo Nation leadership to begin assessing possible locations for additional ACFs.

Representatives with the Albuquerque District first met with Navajo Nation leadership April 1 and immediately began conducting site assessments on 10 possible locations.

During the assessment phase, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, along with several USACE and Arizona National Guard members, had to go into quarantine after coming in contact with a first responder who tested positive for COVID-19.

“This is real, and no one is immune from contracting the virus. We will continue to help fight for our people while we self-quarantine,” Nez stated in a press release.

Nez and his staff determined the locations for ACFs would be at the Chinle Community Center in Chinle, Arizona, and the Atsa Biyaazh Community School in Shiprock, New Mexico. Both ACF projects utilized the arena-to-health care concept that was used in Gallup, and were both completed on the same aggressive 14-day timeline.

“We are honored to work shoulder to shoulder with the Navajo Nation in support of their COVID-19 response efforts,” Scott said. “President Nez’s leadership has been tremendous and we are truly grateful for the opportunity to support [them] and for the partnership we share.”

The Chinle Community Center project created bed space for 50 patients and cost $2.4 million. The Atsa Biyaazh Community School project created bed space for 40 patients, for $2.1 million.

This article appears in the 2020-2021 edition of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) South Pacific

Division (SPD) provides federal and military engineering support in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and in parts of Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Texas.

Comprised of 2,300 Soldiers and civilians at five operating districts (headquartered in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Albuquerque, and Phoenix), the division manages a broad range of challenging missions across an economically, environmentally, and culturally diverse region.

The South Pacific Division’s Military Construction program supports 25 Army and Air Force installations, including Military Ocean Terminal-Concord, a crucial component of military logistics and readiness, as well as Nellis, Cannon, Hill, and Kirtland Air Force Bases.

The division is also partnering with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to build world-class medical facilities to support veterans. SPD is managing a $3.5 billion mega-program to modernize seven VA hospitals in California and Nevada, working in partnership to deliver projects that will serve those who have served our country.

South Pacific Division’s Civil Works program leverages federal resources for navigation, flood damage reduction, and ecosystem restoration. In the predominantly arid Pacific Southwest, water resources are vital to agriculture, urban development, natural ecosystems, tribal interests, and recreation. Major river basins include the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Ana, Colorado, and Rio Grande, which are governed by complex water rights. Accordingly, the division works in partnership with other federal agencies, state governments, and local communities on collaborative solutions to these complex water resource issues.

Under the Bipartisan Budget Act Storm Supplemental, the division is executing $2.5 billion in long-term investment construction focused on flood risk resiliency to reduce risk to communities and infrastructure. The division is also home to the Urban Search and Rescue Program, which trains and deploys structural engineers to augment the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) task forces, the military, and others in evaluating immediate structural conditions in a natural or man-made disaster.


• 10 states (5 shared with other divisions)

• 170 Native American Nations

• 81 members of the U.S. House of Representatives

• 20 U.S. senators

• 15 of the 25 fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan areas

• 2,286 miles of federal levees

• 46 dams and reservoirs

• 5 strategic ports

• Less than 20 inches annual precipitation; prone to flooding and drought cycles

• 30 recreational areas, hosting 15.7 million visits annually

• 300 of 1,200 threatened/endangered species

• 4 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and FEMA regions (6, 8, 9, and 10)

• 13 Army and 12 Air Force installations/programs



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