US spent $660M to build emergency field hospitals but most haven't treated a single Covid-19 patient so far

These temporary facilities could still help in case of a second wave of infections


                            US spent $660M to build emergency field hospitals but most haven't treated a single Covid-19 patient so far
(Getty Images)

Fearing the worst, the US constructed emergency field hospitals or makeshift facilities around the country to support overwhelmed hospitals. But most of them have not treated a single patient until now.

An NPR investigation revealed the country shelled out $660 million for this purpose. Though some of these facilities are expected to close, they could still help if the new coronavirus triggers a second wave of infections. Some of them might turn into testing or recovery centers.

The saga highlights how the US was not sufficiently prepared to face the pandemic. "It's so painful because what it is showing is that the plans we have in place, they don't work," Robyn Gershon, a professor at New York University's School of Global Public Health, told NPR. "We have to go back to the drawing board and redo it," she added.

Others, however, think empty beds in these hospitals are a positive sign. Michigan's governor Gretchen Whitmer said she was relieved that the 1,000-bed alternate care sites were unused.

A military leader also felt the same, haling it a success. "If you see beds full, that means the local capacity of the local hospitals to handle this [has] been overwhelmed. And now we're into an emergency situation," General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference.

Why were the field hospitals built?

Countries across the world erected field hospitals, with some occupying conference venues, stadiums, and fairgrounds. For instance,  in the UK, authorities turned the ExCel conference venue into a makeshift hospital with nearly 4,000 beds.

The facilities were meant to ease the burden on hospitals. Spain and Italy and others also built them.

In the US, early models predicted that the country might not have enough hospital beds to treat the influx of patients. New York projections were stark, forecasting that the state would need to double hospital capacity to 110,000 beds by the end of April.

Countries across the world erected field hospitals, with some occupying conference venues, stadiums, and fairgrounds (Getty Images)

Erring on the side of caution, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo requested the Army Corps to build field hospitals. 

So contractors built two such facilities on Long Island, on the campuses of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and SUNY Old Westbury, at a total cost of more than $270 million, according to NPR. Both of them have not treated a single patient yet.

The Central Perk facility treated 315 patients while the Javits field hospital in Manhattan managed about 1,100 patients in the first three weeks. "It was very disappointing. Everybody was here, ready to work, ready to get patients in," said Dario Gonzalez, an emergency doctor with the New York City Fire Department who helped lead the medical response at the temporary hospital at the Javits Center.

US President Donald Trump, wrote a tweet, targeting Cuomo, "We built you thousands of hospital beds that you did not need or use,” he wrote. 

Defending his push for field hospitals, Cuomo said it was better to “plan for the worst, hope for the best”. Similarly, other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia also set them up. New Jersey set up four Army Corps-built field hospitals, with a total of 1,000 beds. Most of these facilities have not seen a single patient, according to NPR.

“Better to build it and they don’t come than to not build it at all,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told AP.

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