By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
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A Department of Defense contract to build a 200-bed field hospital in the Bronx has been canceled by the federal government, with a stop-work order issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Monday morning, Bronx Justice News has learned.
The $40 million contract was awarded April 3 to Parsons Corporation, a global defense and critical infrastructure provider that had been rushing to build the Bronx’s only COVID-19 hospital. The project broke ground this month amid an acute, and ongoing, shortage of coronavirus care in the borough’s low-income communities of color.
The canceled contract was for “an alternative care facility” at the park, records show. Several other federal contracts for critical medical infrastructure in New York were also cancelled this week, and all work on them ceased, by order of the federal government.
“This morning, Parsons and the other contractors selected during the second phase of field hospital development in New York have been advised that these efforts are not proceeding,” Parsons spokesman Bryce McDevitt said in a statement to Bronx Justice News Monday. “As New York assesses the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) response, we are hopeful that the cases continue declining. We stand ready to continue supporting the people of New York in furthering the Corps’ mission in combating this global pandemic. We are working closely with several states and cities to develop alternate care plans that can mitigate pressure on local medical facilities based on their COVID-19 projections.”
The erection of the hospital on Van Cortlandt Park’s sprawling Parade Ground faced numerous logistical challenges, given the area’s vulnerability to rain and flooding. The emergency structure would had to have been erected from scratch by builders, then entirely sealed to ensure sterility against spread of the virus.
With the contract for the structure now canceled, the Bronx lacks any emergency, federally-administered field hospitals, despite having the highest rate of coronavirus death and transmission in New York City.
At least 22,709 Bronx residents were infected and 1,400 of them killed by COVID-19 as of Sunday afternoon.
Parsons has worked on a variety of federal defense jobs in recent decades, including the building of medical centers for Iraqis after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Responding to news of the canceled hospital, Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres – himself a survivor of coronavirus – said the reversal is a mistake.
“The decision to cancel construction feels like a premature declaration of mission accomplished,” Torres told Bronx Justice News. “It’s true that the number of infections is levelling off, but the progress that’s been made toward flattening the curve is fragile and reversible.”
Even if the transmission rate continues to slow in New York City, there could easily be a resurgence, Torres said.
Roughly 70 coronavirus vaccines are in various stages of development across the globe, and three are now being tested on humans, according to records posted by the World Health Organization.
“As long as there’s no vaccine, there’s going to be a continual risk of resurgence, and the purpose of these field hospitals with overflow capacity is to prepare for that resurgence,” the councilman said.
“There should be a surge capacity in the Bronx. There should be at least one dedicated overflow hospital, staffed by the federal government, in order to ease the strain on the hospitals in the Bronx.”
“Hospitals like like St. Barnabas and Lincoln are firing on all cylinders,” said Torres, stressing that the borough’s COVID-19 care facilities are operating at or near capacity. “You can only perform at that level for so long before exhausting the hospitals’ [resources] and the staff.”
Bronx City Councilman Andrew Cohen, an early champion of the planned field hospital, blasted the government’s stop-work order.
“It’s disappointing to hear that the federal contract for the project has been cancelled and work on the Van Cortlandt site has been suspended today citing logistical challenges,” said Cohen. “The project’s cancellation now leaves the Bronx, one of the most COVID-19 impacted boroughs, without an emergency care site when the need is still great and calls for help from our hospitals are widespread. It’s no secret the health care system is seriously overburdened and the challenges are unevenly distributed with the heaviest burden falling on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in the Bronx.”
The government’s decision to cancel the contract, “given the absence of a plan to address the widening gap in access to care, does not align with public statements promising more, not less, relief for the hardest-hit communities in the Bronx,” Cohen said.
Federal coronavirus treatment facilities have already opened elsewhere in the city.
In Manhattan this month, an emergency hospital was quickly built by the Army Corps of Engineers at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. That hospital has roughly 20 times the capacity of the canceled Van Cortland Park project.
Emails sent to the Department of Defense and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Monday were not immediately returned.