Editorial: Trump indictment a political minefield

Cities sign longer leases for Army hospitals for possible COVID-19 resurgence in fall

Tara Copp

Washington — Some cities are preparing for a resurgence of coronavirus cases in the fall and winter by signing leases with sites for Army field hospitals that last through December, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers said Friday.

Over the last 35 days, the Corps has been rapidly building field hospitals that have added more than 15,700 hospital beds across the country to address local concerns that available medical space would not be enough for the expected influx of COVID-19 patients.

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the United States Army Corps of Engineers

The rapid buildup was based on assumptions that coronavirus cases would peak nationally by late April, but that now appears unlikely, said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general and chief engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We thought this would be a much steeper spike and straight down,” Semonite said. “What we’re seeing is the curve is elongated. So where we thought it was going to kind of go up and come back down, we’re seeing that that curve stretch all the way out to perhaps as far as June,” in some areas, he said.

The rapidly changing models on how long the virus will impact areas across the country have some cities opting to sign leases to keep additional medical space through the end of the year. On the other hand, Washington state chose to close a field hospital due to lack of use.

“We don’t know how this is going to play out,” Semonite said. “A couple of these (cities) have signed a seven-month lease, the leadership in a particular city has said, ‘We don’t know if this is coming back in the fall or not. So let’s make the investment to build it, and at least we have it, almost like insurance.’”

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers declined to identify which cities have signed longer leases, saying that would have to be provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the cities. FEMA was not immediately available for comment.

One factor in a city’s decision on whether to extend a field hospital longer term may be cost, Semonite said. Many of the field hospital sites have been established in city convention centers which hold events or large trade shows that contribute to the local economy. While those convention centers are closed now, they could slowly reopen depending on state and national policy.

“The question of ‘how long’ is a great question that I think we have to have, though, at the national level,” Semonite said.

For some converted field hospital sites, it might make sense to keep the beds in place for a while, he said.

For example, the Corps just completed a conversion on April 11 of a Quality Inn near St. Louis to turn the hotel into a field hospital site with 118 beds.

Depending on the economic impact of keeping the hotel closed to guests, Semonite said it might make sense to keep it as a field hospital and “to have this hotel as a reserve for St. Louis for eight or nine months, that’s probably not a bad investment to kind of put it in a mothballs status through the summer.”