WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said on Wednesday that time was running out to start work on new facilities to help medical authorities cope with the coronavirus outbreak, as swathes of the United States prepare for a surge in coronavirus patients.
“We’re beginning to run out of time,” Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Corps, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Semonite said that the Corps would probably stop beginning to build new facilities in about a week. He added that he would not reject a request for assistance, however.
“We’ll continue to support this. I’m not going to say ‘no’. But at some given point, this goes back to, ‘Are you going to be able to get a facility done?’” he added.
Work has started on 17 facilities contracted out by the Army Corps of Engineers so far to accommodate about 15,000 beds, mostly for coronavirus patients. The number of beds is expected to rise as additional projects come onstream, according to the Corps’ website.
Initially, the military said it was focused on building hospitals to treat non-coronavirus patients to help ease the pressure on hospitals.
Two military hospital ships were initially sent to New York and Los Angeles to help non-coronavirus patients only. The Pentagon argued at the time that the ships were built to treat trauma, not infectious diseases.
The military has slowly moved away from that and the Comfort hospital ship has started to accept patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Earlier this week, a crewmember aboard the ship tested positive for the virus.
Facilities converted by the Army Corps, such as the Javits Center in New York City, are also moving to accept coronavirus patients.
“We understand that introducing COVID-19 positive patients... elevates the risk of transmission to other patients and our medical providers,” the Pentagon said last week.
“This decision was risk-informed and made to ensure that (the Defense Department) can continue to provide these local communities the type of medical care they most need,” it added.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Sandra Maler and Sonya Hepinstall