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Army staffing field hospitals to fight coronavirus while trying to stay ready for war

Inside the Army's coronavirus field hospital
Inside the Army's coronavirus field hospital in New York City 04:20

The United States Army is opening the first field hospital for civilians in New York City Monday. The new medical facility at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan is designed to handle non-COVID-19 patients, freeing existing New York hospitals to expand their fight against the coronavirus.

That fight against COVID-19 is unlike any other Army chief of staff General James McConville, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen. "You're in a war against an invisible threat," he told medics at the Javits Center. 

McConville received a briefing and tour of the converted facility Sunday. Starting Monday, the hospital can help save about 1,000 lives at a time. By next week, there will be 3,000 beds.

McConville said the playbook could be used nationwide.

"Army Corps of Engineers are in every single state. They are working with the state and local officials. They've done 181 assessments of preexisting facilities like this, so we can rapidly stand up hospitals and we're working with FEMA, and FEMA's the one who's providing all this type of equipment," he told "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil.

The 181 facilities include arenas and hotels, McConville said. 

"The intent is to quickly turn them into some type of health care facilities to give the states options," he said. "To give them additional capacity in their states."

But with half of its field hospitals now dedicated to the fight against COVID-19, the Army could soon face staffing shortages of its own. The Army will staff the hospitals while maintaining its capability for the outbreak of war with "very careful management," McConville said. 

"We're managing risks. We know what we have. We know what we have available," he said. 

Asked if they would be calling up volunteers and new recruits, McConville said, "We have called up volunteers, but we have in the regular Army right now what we need to protect the nation and defeat anyone that wishes us harm."

The hospitals are part of a wider U.S. military effort to beat back the coronavirus. The Army is providing medical support, logistics planning and vaccine research, McConville said. 

The general said he doesn't foresee a future where the Army is enforcing a quarantine.

"What I see is the Army is here to protect the nation, not to police the nation," he said. "We don't have that type of order, we have not been asked to plan for those types of things."

But, the Army will be in New York City fighting the virus for the long haul, McConville said.

"We're here to protect the nation, and right now, as the president said, our nation is threatened by this invisible enemy, this virus, and we will defeat it," he said.

Nearly 600 active duty medical personnel and support staff will be working at the Javits Center. The Army is officially a resource of last resort used only after city, county, state and civilian federal resources have been exhausted.

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