WASHINGTON — As U.S. President Donald Trump scrambles to mobilize the government against the new coronavirus, a growing number of lawmakers are voicing frustration that the Army Corps of Engineers isn’t being used to convert or construct new, temporary medical facilities.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Army Corps of Engineers leaders were to meet Wednesday with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. After Cuomo urged the move days ago to relieve hospitals expected to face overcrowding, so did one-time presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday and 65 House Democrats, led by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., in a letter to Trump on Tuesday.
"Given the reality of the exponential growth of the virus, supplemental infrastructure must be designated and ready to receive patients immediately," Warren, D-Mass., said in her letter to Trump. Warren is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Cuomo, who anticipates his state’s hospitals would be dramatically overrun, said at a news conference Wednesday that the Navy will help by deploying the hospital ship USNS Comfort to New York Harbor. Cuomo said he recently had positive conversations with Trump and Esper, and the governor plans to meet with Army Corps of Engineers leaders Wednesday afternoon.
"The state cannot do this on its own," Cuomo said. "The most important thing in life to know is to know what you cannot do. Know your limitations. 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."
Trump has called the fight a “war,” and on Wednesday he announced he will invoke the Defense Production Act to strengthen America’s domestic manufacturing capacity and ramp up production of medical supplies that are in short supply.
Esper announced Tuesday that the Defense Department will send up to 5 million breathing masks and 2,000 ventilators, as well as open labs to test for the virus, which is known as COVID-19. He also said the department will review whether to federalize more Guard and Reserve troops. The National Guard has activated more than 1,500 Guard members across 18 states.
Esper also said he was open to the use of the Army Corps of Engineers stepping in as requested.
“Today, leadership in the Army Corps of Engineers is in New York, meeting with Gov. Cuomo and his team. I spoke with Gov. Cuomo yesterday and other governors,” Esper said at a White House news conference Wednesday. “I will be speaking to them more in the coming days, to make sure that they know what DoD can provide through our system and to address their needs.”
Some lawmakers have called on the administration to shift funding away from the southern border wall project, which has tapped billions in Defense Department funding.
“The Trump Administration should also immediately seek reprogramming approval to shift funding from the ineffective border wall and use it to help combat coronavirus and save lives,” said Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I.
“Our Armed Forces are not first responders or law enforcement, but they have a critical role to play, especially the National Guard, and I urge the Trump Administration and the Pentagon to coordinate relief efforts and ensure we have all resources needed to fight this pandemic.”