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US army engineers deployed to build medical facilities

The Army Corps of Engineers is to begin deployment in New York State to bolster its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers have been piling pressure on the White House to deploy the agency to assist with the construction of temporary medical facilities across the country.

The Army Corps of Engineers is a large Department of Defence agency comprising tens of thousands of civilian and military personnel, with responsibility for overseeing public engineering works to ensure public safety, such as flood protection.

With Covid-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) diagnoses racing towards 10,000 in the US, the federal government is under intense pressure to take drastic action to clamp down on transmission; to provide sufficient care for growing numbers of patients, and to support businesses and individuals through the pandemic.

Among other demands, lawmakers have been calling on the Trump administration to mobilise the Army Corps of Engineers to convert or construct new short-term medical stations to treat patients and ease pressure on overcrowded facilities.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo - who has been urging the deployment for several days, as New York State hospitals approach capacity - has been joined by former Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren (a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and 65 Democratic Representatives.

“Given the reality of the exponential growth of the virus, supplemental infrastructure must be designated and ready to receive patients immediately,” Warren wrote in a letter addressed to President Trump.

Cuomo, who has directly spoken to Mark Esper, the President and Defense Secretary about the state’s needs, has now announced that the USNS Comfort – a hospital ship with 1,000 beds – will be deployed to New York Harbour to look into the construction of temporary hospitals and mobile medical facilities. These mobile facilities could each have a capacity of 200-250 people. These facilities could 'pop up' wherever clusters of Covid-19 cases appear.

“The state cannot do this on its own. The most important thing in life is to know what you cannot do. Know your limitations,” Cuomo said, warning that the state alone does not have the workforce to respond to the pandemic. “We can’t build new hospitals in 45 days. The federal government can be extremely helpful here and we need the federal government’s help.”

President Trump, who has gone from suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak is a Democratic “hoax” to declaring “war” against it in the space of a few weeks, invoked the Defense Production Act this week. This wartime act – which allows the federal government to demand private manufacturers produce certain items necessary for the good of the US – is intended to accelerate production of essential medical supplies, such as ventilators, surgical masks and respirators.

Meanwhile, an additional 10,000 British military personnel are being flown back from deployment to assist the NHS, police forces and other public services in managing the coronavirus pandemic. The personnel include military medics, engineers and logistics experts.

“The men and women of our armed forces stand ready to protect Britain and her citizens from all threats, including Covid-19,” said Ben Wallace, defence secretary. The unique flexibility and dedication of the services means that we are able to provide assistance across the whole of society in this time of need.

From me downwards, the entirety of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces are dedicated to getting the nation through this global pandemic.”

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