BY JENNIFER GUNN, North Atlantic Division
“This is an unbelievably complicated problem.” That was the hard truth shared by then-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Chief of Engineers and Commander Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite during a March 20 press briefing at the Pentagon. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to do this with a complicated solution. We need something super simple,” he said.
The complicated problem was COVID-19 – a pandemic originating from China that, in early 2020, began spreading across all 50 states. In some large population centers like New York City, which had been declared the “epicenter of this crisis” by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the numbers of COVID cases were increasing at a near-doubling daily rate.
In fact, at the rate cases were rising, the virus would outpace most states’ capacity to provide health care. Simply put, people would get sick, and there wouldn’t be enough hospital beds to go around.
Patient care units under construction inside the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, March 27, 2020. The Javits Center site was selected due, in part, to its large expanse of open space.
The super simple solution to this complicated problem? Develop and implement a standard design that would retrofit existing facilities and help states increase their capacity to treat those who would be affected by the disease, according to Semonite.
“A lot of governors said, ‘We’ve got to be able to build hospitals in a couple weeks,’” Semonite told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow during a March 26 studio interview. “You can’t build a hospital in a couple weeks.”
However, USACE’s combination of engineer and construction experts could leverage existing buildings – arenas, hotels, dorms – and modify them to create alternate care facilities to answer the nation’s bed-space shortage.
As the nation’s lead public works and engineering experts under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, USACE engineers at the North Atlantic Division (NAD) set to work performing inspections on state-identified sites across its 13-state region and the District of Columbia. All together, they completed more than 240 assessments, with over 80 occurring in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That amount, coupled with the geographical distance from the Norfolk District Headquarters to the northern reaches of the state, had Norfolk contacting its neighboring district – the Transatlantic Middle East (TAM) District, headquartered in Winchester, Virginia – for a helping hand.
“Our primary mission is to support the U.S. Central Command in the Middle East,” said Col. Philip Secrist, TAM commander. “When Norfolk District requested assistance, we had team members chomping at the bit to serve.”
The U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort arrived in New York City March 30 in support of COVID-19 response efforts. The USACE vessel Gelberman came alongside the ship’s starboard side as it made its way along the New York Harbor to its newly dredged dock in Manhattan.
NAD’s first actual site conversion – and perhaps one of its most well known – was New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center. There, USACE adapted 160,000 square feet on multiple floors to provide 1,000 bed spaces for a field medical station initially intended to treat non-COVID patients and help ease the burden on hospitals treating those infected with the virus.
The U.S. Navy also pitched in to lighten the load by sending one of Military Sealift Command’s two hospital ships, the USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), from its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia. Both the Comfort and the Javits would later be modified to receive COVID patients at the request of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Because of the tight timelines to get “bed spaces on the ground,” workers drove projects around the clock.
“Teamwork is essential to accomplishing any mission and that’s certainly been the case with respect to the ongoing COVID-19 response,” said Philadelphia District Commander Lt. Col. David Park. His team of professionals were responsible for multiple construction efforts in New Jersey.
“It’s been a 24/7 effort to construct the alternate care facilities in New Jersey, and many have sacrificed to carry out this vital mission,” Park said.
With three additional sites constructed throughout New York City, several sites built in New Jersey, and a handful of others under construction by the states, NAD helped turn out a dozen care sites in the region. Its final build, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., was managed by its Baltimore District.
“Our goal … [was] to get this site operational as quickly as possible while meeting medical standards, so equipment and beds can be placed and health care providers can take over, should the need arise,” said Col. John Litz, Baltimore District commander.
While Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser hoped never to have to use the site, “we must have the capacity to support a potential increase in COVID-19 patients,” she said.
Because of the tireless efforts of the North Atlantic Division team, its partners, and contractors, more than 7,000 bed spaces were provided to states in a mix of COVID and non-COVID configurations. And though the number of USACE spaces provided would barely scratch the surface of the more than 17 million Americans who have been confirmed with the virus since March 2020, as of this writing, each space means everything to those treated inside it.
“We want to set the condition that hospital bed space is not a factor [in our ability to overcome the disease],” Semonite said.
Ann Marie Harvie, Sarah Lazo, Patrick Bloodgood, Steve Rochette, Chris Augsburger, Joe Macri, and the New York District Public Affairs Office contributed to this article.
This article appears in the 2020-2021 edition of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces
NORTH ATLANTIC DIVISION
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) North Atlantic Division (NAD) serves as the Department of Defense’s engineering, design, and construction agent for 50 U.S. Army and 13 U.S. Air Force installations east of the Appalachian Mountains in the northeast United States and Europe. NAD supports U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command, with projects in 46 countries across Europe, Israel, and Africa.
NAD maintains five major harbors – Boston, New York-New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk – and more than 200 smaller ports in the Northeast.
The division maintains and operates four canals that make up parts of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The Chesapeake and Delaware canals across the top of the Delmarva Peninsula shorten the distance via water route between Baltimore and Philadelphia by 300 miles.
The NAD area of operations includes:
• 23% of U.S. population (75 million people)
• 101,000 acres of land managed and maintained
• 24,000 acres of water and 470 miles of shoreline and cultural resources conserved and protected
• 25.6% of U.S. coastal tonnage
• 3,300 employees
• 2,685 miles of navigable channels
• 170 vessels supporting the nation’s navigation mission, including the sea-going hopper dredge McFarland
• 55 dams and three hurricane barriers that are USACEoperated and -maintained, along with 290 miles of USACEinspected levees that provide valuable flood-storage capacity as well as inland and coastal storm damage protection
• 8 high-level bridges
• 10 million visitors to recreation sites, supporting approximately 3,560 jobs and generating more than $340 million in visitor spending within 30 miles of USACE lakes
NORTH ATLANTIC DIVISION
302 General Lee Ave. Brooklyn, NY 11252 (347) 370-4550 email@example.com www.nad.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/northatlanticdivision twitter.com/ArmyCorpsNAD www.youtube.com/user/usacenorthatlantic www.flickr.com/photos/usacenad
2 Hopkins Plaza Baltimore, MD 21201 (410) 962-2809 firstname.lastname@example.org www.nab.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/USACEBaltimore twitter.com/USACEBaltimore www.youtube.com/c/USACEBaltimore www.flickr.com/photos/corps_of_engineers_baltimore
CMR 410, Box 1 APO AE 09049 +49 (0) 611-9744-2703 email@example.com www.nau.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/europedistrict twitter.com/europedistrict www.youtube.com/user/usaceEuropeDistrict
NEW ENGLAND DISTRICT
696 Virginia Rd. Concord, MA 01742 (978) 318-8238 firstname.lastname@example.org www.nae.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/CorpsNewEngland twitter.com/CorpsNewEngland www.instagram.com/usacenewengland/ www.flickr.com/photos/corpsnewengland/
NEW YORK DISTRICT
26 Federal Plaza Room 17-302 New York, NY 10278 (917) 790-8007 email@example.com www.nan.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/USACE.NewYorkDistrict/ twitter.com/USACE_NY www.youtube.com/user/USACENewYorkDistrict www.flickr.com/photos/newyorkdistrict-usace
803 Front St. Norfolk, VA 23510 (757) 201-7606 firstname.lastname@example.org www.nao.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/NAOonFB twitter.com/norfolkdistrict www.flickr.com/photos/armyengineersnorfolk
The Wanamaker Building 100 Penn Square East Philadelphia, PA 19107-3390 (215) 656-6515 PDPA-NAP@usace.army.mil www.nap.usace.army.mil www.facebook.com/USACEPhilly www.youtube.com/user/USACEPhillyDistrict www.flickr.com/photos/philadelphiausace