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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Creates Temporary Hospitals to Handle Patient Surge; Food Banks Struggle as Demand Soars Amid Pandemic; U.S. Economy Lost 701,000 Jobs in March. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired April 3, 2020 - 09:30   ET



GAYLE SMITH, FORMER ADMINISTRATOR, U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT: And at home we're practicing social distancing. The federal government's part is really key here also. We need a really right efficient national supply chain that pays less attention to borders to what we know about where the virus is moving and where the hotspots are. We need clear and consistent information and we also need, and I hope this is going on, to plan ahead.

We're getting new testing options, for example. How are we going to deploy those? What's the plan? So we really need to have a tight strategy and not just tactics.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I should note for our listeners, who of course are also CEO of the one campaign which does incredible work, especially across Africa, and just the experience that you gained while you were at -- on the NSC, while you were dealing with the Ebola crisis in 2014, and the point you've made that, you know, President Bush in dealing with the AIDS epidemic and what PEPFAR meant. I guess what lessons can we learn from that now?

SMITH: Well, PEPFAR was a great move. It was also a really bold move. If you remember, back at the time, we suddenly announced we're going to spend billions on AIDS, it was also an absolutely nonpartisan move. There was a lot of support from both parties for it. I was probably one administration to build on it, and that the president increased funding dramatically. We worked with the former Bush team as we did that.

So I think one message is that we need to -- there is blood politics here, don't get me wrong. Those need to beg discussion. Have than on one track, focus on another track, on achieving the mission. Right? So I think that's one big lesson. The other is there is tremendous experience across the federal government in global health. And I think some of it is being drawn upon. I think there is a lot more that could be brought to bear to make us successful both at home and abroad.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. I mean, all those things. PEPFAR with AIDS, Ebola, h1n1.

SMITH: Yes. SCIUTTO: I mean, they all taught a lesson that these are global issues

that you can't sort of put up walls, right, and imagine it's someone else's problem.

Gayle Smith, thanks so much for coming on today.

SMITH: Thank you. And thanks for keeping the news on.

HARLOW: Of course.

SCIUTTO: We're going to do our best.

Right now, several hospitals across this country are being overwhelmed already by waves of coronavirus patients. So the Army Corps of Engineers is now building temporary hospitals to help cope. The commanding general for the corps is going to join me next.



SCIUTTO: Across the country, the Army Corps of Engineers is working around the clock now to relieve the strain on hospitals hit by the surge in coronavirus patients. In New York, they turned the Javits Convention Center into an emergency medical facility. In less than a week it will now treat COVID-19 patients. Right now the corps working on so many sites around the country, so many states who need this.

Joining me now to discuss is Lieutenant General Todd Semonite. He is the commanding general for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

General, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

LT. GEN. TODD SEMONITE, COMMANDING GENERAL, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Hey, Jim. First of all, thanks for having us on. I just want to make sure you know that all of us in the Department of Defense, I mean, our thoughts and prayers are going out to all these families. I mean, there's heroes out there that are continuing to step up to be able to solve this and we're really, really proud to be part of this amazing team to try to mitigate this bed shortage.

SCIUTTO: For sure. And I don't have to tell you about the history of the corps, building bases, hospitals around the world during times of war. Now taking that experience to save lives at home. You have said you have 750 requests from mayors and governors around the country here. You're meeting those requests, you're doing your best.

Do you believe you can meet all of those requests in time for the peak of this?

SEMONITE: Jim, I think we do. We have an unbelievably talented team in the Corps of Engineers and we're way ahead. We're trying to stay way out in front of this. As you know very, very well, this all started about two weeks ago when Governor Cuomo asked President Trump to say, I need help with the Corps of Engineers. We flew to New York within about 12 hours and we devised a very, very simple plan of basically making COVID facilities and non-COVID facilities.

Those are in two types of portfolios. There was some that were smaller rooms like hospitals and dormitory -- I'm sorry, hotels and dormitories, and then other ones which were in larger areas. Think about convention centers and maybe fieldhouses. So over the last two weeks, we are in support of FEMA here. We have governors and mayors do have a bed shortage and what can the Corps of Engineers do to be able to help give you some standard designs?


SEMONITE: We have lists from all of the 50 states for the territories and are working right now to be able to figure out how do we turn those priorities into actual construction.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Tell us about that because you've done something brilliant here. You've created, as you said, sort of a design template that you don't have to build yourself. You can pass those -- that blueprint on, I suppose you could call it, to states and local communities so they can do it themselves. Tell us how that works.

SEMONITE: So I'll just give you some numbers here and these are brand new numbers. As of this morning, we're actually building eight hospitals and about 9600 beds that we're actually constructing. There is about another nine or 10 hospitals that we'll probably have done in -- I mean, that we're going to go under contract in the next two to three days. But because we have had a standard design, and then we cited that (INAUDIBLE), we actually went to some of the governors and the mayors and we said here's the approved design.

It's all been stamped by HHS, We had it through the federal governors -- I mean, the federal leadership, now take this design and you can build this yourself.


The number that we developed this morning, eight of these hospitals are actually built by states and mayors and that equates to about 5600 beds. So they can do it with their own contractors on the ground. So the whole point here is come up with a concept, an idea, and then ruthlessly push it down to the lowest level and let our leaders execute it on the ground.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this because, of course, there is a coming peak in the near term, but as Dr. Fauci and others have said, we may face as a country multiple waves of this. Is what you're doing now going to allow states and local communities to be better prepared if that does come true, that there are other waves, other spikes down the road?

SEMONITE: Well, of course, we're taking our lead from Vice President Pence and the task force to kind of be able to figure up what is that predictive analysis? We've got a pretty intense modeling cell that we're working with the rest of the federal government and we don't do this by the United States. We don't even do this by a state. We go into a city and we see where is the slope of that curve and what is the bed shortage and then how do we build this facility?

Your bigger question here is probably is what happens if this goes several, several months? How long do these facilities stay up? That's not my question to answer. We're mainly able to get them up and try to get the minimum essential we need before the demand and every single demand is different for every single city, but we don't have the ability and the time to be able to do it like everybody would like.

I'm telling our guys, you got X amount of days. You get the mission essential piece done by the time that mayor needs it done.

SCIUTTO: Final question before I let you go, what is the biggest lesson that the Army has learned about handling a pandemic like this?

SEMONITE: Well, again, I'm proud to be the Corps of Engineers. I think when you talk about DOD, it goes back to how do you anticipate, how do you try to understand what a requirement might be. And then long before the phone ever rings from FEMA, we should be way out front. Secretary Esper is pushing different military capabilities out now. Be it the field hospitals from different services.

What we're trying to do is go into that local mayor and say, we anticipate you might have a problem. How can we help you think through what those options are? And then what we really need to do as a nation, once we see how to deal with this, just like we do with hurricanes and disasters, how do you put that plan on a shelf so that if this ever happens again, we have a pretty good starting point to be able to come back out of the -- you know, be able to come back off the starting line.

SCIUTTO: Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, you and the men and women working under you. You're doing yeoman's work. Thanks so much.

SCIUTTO: Hey, Jim, I just want to be able to say, I mean, we're getting massive support. My phone rings all the time. President Trump and Secretary Esper called me last Friday afternoon. And everybody is saying what can we do to set you guys up for success? And this is where -- this is the entire team, all pulling hard, and everybody is focused on one thing, and that's saving lives.

SCIUTTO: That's good to hear. Thanks to you, sir.

HARLOW: Wow. Grateful for him and all those working with him.


HARLOW: Pretty sad reality when it comes to access to food right now. Food banks across the country are navigating a perfect storm, struggling to help so many Americans in need as volunteers have to stay home and donations are drying up.



HARLOW: Right now, food banks across the country are struggling to fill a void never seen before, really, and not in a situation like this, as millions of people are just suddenly out of work overnight, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, America 2020, food shortages. Charities are now trying to tackle the overwhelming increase in demand with a shortage of supplies, fewer helping hands.

CNN's Miguel Marquez tells the story.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Next person in line, come on down.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The lines never longer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One chicken per person.

MARQUEZ: The need never greater. The coronavirus switching the economy off like a light, putting millions out of work overnight.

(On camera): Are you stressed? Are you afraid? Are you confused?

CHARLES BEAVER, LOST JOB TWO WEEKS AGO: Just not sure. Not sure of when this will end. Just not sure.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Last month Charles Beaver was a baggage handler at JFK. He's last paycheck come and gone. Five members in his house help pay the mortgage, four of them lost their jobs.

(On camera): How long can you hold up?

BEAVER: Right now, all the reserves are done. That's what we're just living on basic because if we had more reserves, we would have gone to the shop, not be here.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): He is one of millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. He's waiting for unemployment benefits to kick in. He's never been unemployed. He's never had to stand in line for food assistance.

MELONY SAMUELS, FOUNDER, THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST HUNGER: We are flabbergasted about what's going on.

MARQUEZ: Melony Samuels founded the Campaign Against Hunger. In a normal year they serve some three million meals to New Yorkers. In the last week, they've served nearly 250,000 meals. At that rate, 2020 will see the organization serve more than 10 million.

SAMUELS: You know what, we all have to roll up our sleeves. We have to do what we can.

MARQUEZ: The entire country will have to roll up its sleeves. Food insecurity has spiked as the economy plummets. From central Ohio to Louisiana, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, to Broward County, Florida, massive lines for food as the recently unemployed and those already on the edge scramble to stock up.


Food banks nationwide overwhelmed and running short. To bridge that gap, everyone will have to pitch in. Nick's Lobster House in Brooklyn doing its part. Keeping most its staff employed and providing thousands of meals to first responders and hospital workers.

DIMITRIOS KAROUSIS, GENERAL MANAGER, NICK'S LOBSTER HOUSE: We got to go day-by-day, you know. A lot of people are home, not working, not making a paycheck.

MARQUEZ: Some of those meals prepared at Nick's now delivered by the Campaign Against Hunger. COVID-19 has overwhelmed charities and changed the way they do everything.

SAMUELS: It is complicated because it is very hard to see your neighbor and can't even go close. We have to change our entire system.

MARQUEZ: For Americans, everywhere, head-spinning change and not since 9/11 has such widespread uncertainty prevailed.

ERIC ADAMS, BROOKLYN BOROUGH RESIDENT: This is a prolonged 9/11 and it's going to take place anywhere from two, three, four months. And that's a long time to sustain anxiety.

MARQUEZ: Samuels and her Campaign Against Hunger have fed New York's neediest for 21 years.

SAMUELS: We're New Yorkers. We're strong. And we can make it. But we have to unite and still keep the social distancing.


MARQUEZ (on camera): Right. Unite but apart.

SAMUELS: Unite but apart. I like that.


MARQUEZ: Look, she has seen a lot and is optimistic but knows that there is a very long road ahead. Just, you know, the largest food bank network in the country, American Food Bank Network, they are already projecting a $104 billion shortfall in what they're getting this year. And these organizations need everything from money to donations to volunteers because a lot of the volunteers were elderly, students, others that are now staying at home. They need boots on the ground -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Unite but apart. I haven't heard it described that way, and it does kind of capture this moment thar we're in.


SCIUTTO: Miguel Marquez, thanks very much. Poppy? HARLOW: And the jobs numbers this morning with more than 700,000 jobs

lost in the month of march alone which does not actually reflect the real height of the pain here is the worst monthly number since the Great Recession.

Let's talk about all of this and the real world implications for people like we just saw. Mohamed El-Arian is with me, chief economic adviser for Allianz.

Mohamed, thank you very much for being here. So we just saw Miguel's important piece on the real pain people with jobs -- they had jobs and lost them overnight, our feeling. The St. Louis Fed this week predicted potentially a 32 percent unemployment rate in the second quarter. That would be higher than during the Great Depression.

Do you agree with those economists, and if so, what does that mean for this country?

MOHAMED EL-ERIAN, CHIEF ECONOMIC ADVISER, ALLIANZ: Unfortunately, I do, Poppy. And that very powerful reporting by Miguel is just a snapshot of something that's going to get much worse. We have the perfect storm. Massive layoffs all over the country, every sector. Second, people who are still working, a lot of them are getting wage cut. And third, economic insecurity has also been increased. By the sense retirement plans are not as solace as they used to be. This is a massive hit. It's going to get worse. We will get through it but there will be enormous pain and everybody is going to have to chip in to help.

HARLOW: Can I ask you? Because what we're hearing from a lot of the experts in the administration, regardless of politics are saying, yes, but it will snap back. This will be a V, it will come back, this is sort of a forced economic shutdown. But there are concerns, though, they're not about corporate debt. Could there be an explosion there? And I just wonder if you think that this sort of manmade economic crisis for now for health reasons could actually become a full-blown financial crisis.

EL-ERIAN: So we'll certainly become a long-term economic hit to our prosperity. And this notion of a V, I think, is going to go away. At best it's a U. And let me explain why. First, we can't get money out there quickly enough. We're building pipes as we go along, so the damage we incur is going to be significant. Second, when we get the all clear on the medical side, turning on the economy is not like a switch. It's really complicated. And finally, there will be permanent changes to the post-crisis landscape.

This is more of a U. This is a generation-defining moment that hopefully we'll manage OK, but we will come out different. We will be a different country on the other side of this.

HARLOW: Well, look, we just learned this morning that the SBA, the Small Business Administration loans that are supposed to start going out today are not because the banks haven't gotten the guidance they need from Treasury and the SBA. How could that fundamentally -- you know, having a false start like this, how could that fundamentally change what they were hoping for in terms of aiding people and aiding somewhat of a recovery?


EL-ERIAN: Because, Poppy, crisis management is really hard. As hard as it is to design something and get it approved through a political process, you also have to implement it, and we don't have the pipes. No one foresaw this sort of shock we were going to get. So you're building a lot of pipes as you're trying to deal with the real damage, and sometimes it takes longer.

Look, I've been through a crisis. I know what it's like. It's a fog of war. You're not quite sure how it's going to happen, you're acting quickly. So it's going to take time. And I think that is what we saw -- what we heard today is sobering. It's not just about Congress and the administration acting, it's about implementation, and that's really hard.

HARLOW: Yes. Well, it's the most important thing, right? To actually get it to the people and the businesses that need it so that they can -- the whole point of this was to keep people employed so you didn't lay off all your workers to get these loans to do that.

Mohamed, thank you very much. Everyone should read your op-ed in "The Hill" talking about the impact that your -- a call that a doctor friend had on you. It was really telling about the state of the economy. Thank you for being with us today.

EL-ERIAN: Thank you.

HARLOW: The death toll is rising. The numbers are unbelievable, supplies are growing short, and soon the federal government will issue new recommendations about what we should all do, if we should all wear these masks out in public.