HANOVER, New Hampshire ⸺ In late March 2020, Army 1st Lt. Eoghan Matthews, a Soldier assigned to the U.S. Army Engineering Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), received a call.
The instructions were cryptic but direct: “Pack a bag, and be ready to go somewhere in the Northeast.”
After earning a degree in systems engineering from the U.S. Military Academy in 2017 and a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, Matthews started working for CRREL in January 2020 as a research associate. Within a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic required him to start teleworking.
Following that phone call and a Monday snowstorm, Matthews started driving March 24 from northern New Hampshire to New York City, which was a “hot spot” in the news for COVID-19 cases.
“When I arrived on site, I was assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) New York District (NAN), and I was put to work in the emergency operations center as a battle captain,” Matthews said. “We were going at a break-neck pace, completing site assessments and determining where we could build alternate care facilities (ACFs),” he said.
“I was managing the flow of information in and out, aggregating reports that came from different field sites, and preparing decisions for the commander of NAN, so he could make decisions and brief the governor and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).”
Matthews said the goal of retrofitting existing facilities for the ACFs is to provide additional space for treating patients throughout the area of operations. An ACF could be used to treat COVID-19 patients or other patients; for the latter, space in the permanent hospitals would be made available for the COVID-19 patients who need more established facilities. USACE provided ACF assessment information to federal, state and local partners so that FEMA could determine if, how and when to move forward with construction.
Matthews visited New York City on several occasions before and was surprised by how silent and empty the city was on this trip. “It looked very different than it normally does,” he said. “It was very quiet, normally it is not that easy to find street parking. It was kind of a shock to see everything like that.”
Matthews described the list of considerations that are factored in when USACE personnel evaluate sites for potential use as an ACF. “We picked sites that were close to hospitals so they could work with an existing medical organization,” he said. “We would repurpose the interior and construct patient spaces inside the building.”
Matthews added that USACE would consider other options, such as setting up very large tents and establish the power and infrastructure inside so patients could be kept comfortable and isolated.
Matthews left New York City May 8, and described the experience as unique. “It’s always great to be part of a team that is doing good work,” said Matthews. “NAN was a great team to work with. I’d also have to credit the interagency team formed from the Department of Defense, FEMA, Department of Health and Human Services, the New York National Guard, and the state and city emergency management organizations. Each group made it a privilege to be part of the endeavor.”
He emphasized that Soldiers understand they can be called upon to deploy anywhere in the world, even within the U.S. “You go where you’re needed,” Matthews said. “New York was where someone was needed, so that was where I went, and I was very happy to be doing it.”