The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a plan to start converting buildings into hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients in need of intensive care.
Much of the official messaging from the federal government and Department of Defense pertaining to the coronavirus has referred to a concept called “flattening the curve.” The premise behind flattening the curve is to spread out the rate of infection over a greater period of time, so as not to overwhelm America’s medical infrastructure.
A simple way to look at flattening the curve is to boil the concept down into hypothetical numbers that are easy to manage. Let’s say a community’s hospital has 10 intensive care beds available with all the equipment necessary to manage them. If 100 people in that community are infected with Covid-19 in a single week and ten percent of them require intensive care, that would fill each ICU bed in the local hospital to capacity. If 200 people are infected in a week and ten percent need intensive care, it would mean overwhelming the ICU capacity in that community with 20 patients in need of intensive care and only enough supplies and equipment for 10.
Through community distancing and other protective measures (like frequent hand washing), officials hope to slow the spread of Covid-19 enough to stop that from happening. If the same 20 people end up needing ICU care, but they’re spaced out over the span of months, it will give medical workers time to treat each patient effectively, release them from care, and bring in new patients into empty beds.
Italy’s difficulties with treating Covid-19 cases can be directly attributed to their inability to flatten the curve. Because so many people got sick at once, it became impossible to provide adequate care to many who got sick. To date, nearly 7,000 people have died in Italy due to the coronavirus, but some of them could have survived if the infection rate had been spread out enough over time to allow for more complete care.
This is of particular import for Americans to pay attention to, because the U.S. actually has fewer intensive care-capable hospital beds Per Capita than Italy, China, or South Korea — all of whom have also been hit hard by the coronavirus. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), America has an average of 2.8 ICU beds per 1,000 citizens, whereas Italy has 3.2, China has 4.3, and South Korea has 12.3.
What these numbers tell us is that America will likely need a sharp influx of ICU beds in communities around the country, especially because many rural communities don’t even have a single ICU bed in their local medical infrastructure.
That’s where the Army Corps of Engineers come in. The Army Corps of Engineers are a federal agency that falls under the purview of the Defense Department and oversees public works and large construction enterprises like the building of dams and canals. It is one of the planet’s largest public works, construction management, and design firms and employs tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel to those ends. Now, they’re ready to leverage their broad and far reaching capabilities to rapidly increase the number of hospital beds available to sick Americans.
By increasing the number of available ICU beds, America will raise the bar on how much flatter we need to make that infection curve without overwhelming capacity. In effect, the Army Corps of Engineers are working to hard to increase capacity while the rest of the country are working hard to reduce requirement. Between the two efforts, America stands a real chance at keeping a lid on Covid-19 infection and treatment throughout the nation.
Of course, increasing the number of ICU beds available to the American population is, without exaggeration, a massive undertaking. Fortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers has a strategy in place aimed at accomplishing this massive feat in an extraordinarily short period of time.
By cooperating with state governments and FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to rapidly convert existing structures into new ICU-like facilities, and they plan to do so by following an operational strategy that has already been thoroughly vetted by multiple agencies across the federal government, planning to make site-level changes to the overall plan to accommodate different facilities instead of establishing new plans for each different structure. By using one universal plan and simply making adjustments, the Army can move far faster than they could if they needed to seek approval for plans pertaining to each individual facility.
“This is an unbelievably complicated problem, and there is no way we’re going to be able to do this with a complicated option — we need something super simple,” explained commander of the Army’s Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite.
The Army’s plan would be to equip each ICU bed with identical equipment based on what’s required to treat severely ill patients. That equipment would utilize wireless reporting to nurses stations that could be set up in hotel hallways or off to the side in large open structures like gymnasiums. This would allow trained nurses to walk into these rapidly constructed ICU facilities and immediately begin doing the job they’ve been trained to do.
“We would like to think we can do this in three or four weeks and try to go as fast as we can,” Semonite told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.
As General Semonite, points out, this effort isn’t a strictly federal one. States would be responsible for staffing and supplying these facilities once the Army was done establishing them. Some states like Georgia have already passed legislation that would allow them to rapidly license nurses and doctors from other states to practice medicine in Georgia. Other states may well soon do the same to meet the demand for healthcare professionals.
Of course, it’s important to remember that many Americans who may eventually be exposed to Covid-19 will likely suffer only moderate symptoms and may not require hospital stays at all. However, many older Americans and those with underlying health problems likely will require a greater level of care than they can receive at home, and that’s where the Army Corps of Engineers could really make a difference in the lives of sick Americans, and importantly, in helping America rapidly recover so the economy can get back on track.