The U.S. military is being tasked with providing additional resources and personnel to help the country combat the novel coronavirus pandemic spreading across the country.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that two U.S. Navy hospital ships would be deployed on each of America’s coasts to expand the availability of hospital beds. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers and field hospitals may be utilized, but the reality is that even with its unique resources, the military would still face hurdles that could limit its usefulness.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper also announced on Tuesday that the Defense Department was providing five million N95 respirator masks and other protective equipment to the government for distribution, along with 2,000 ventilators. Additionally, the 16 department labs that can currently process COVID-19 tests can now be used by civilians, not just DOD-personnel, he said.
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But as the number of Americans testing positive for the virus grows, the Pentagon is being called upon to ease the burden on civilian hospitals running out of bed space.
The president confirmed on Wednesday that two U.S. Navy hospital ships — the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort — are being readied to deploy on both U.S. coasts. The Comfort, currently docked in Norfolk and undergoing maintenance, will head to New York City. But Trump said there has not been a destination set for the Mercy, which is located in San Diego.
He said the ships could deploy “over the next week or so, depending on the need.”
With hundreds of beds, the ships have most recently been deployed during humanitarian disasters. Just last fall, the Comfort completed a five-month deployment to South America to assist health systems overwhelmed by Venezuelan refugees.
Another option could be for DOD to deploy field hospitals. Though typically seen in combat zones, these kinds of tent hospitals were assembled by the department in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic in 2014.
But both hospital ships and field hospitals are designed for treating trauma, not infectious diseases.
“And so whether it’s our field hospitals, whether it’s our hospital ships, they are focused on trauma.” Esper told reporters on Tuesday. “They don’t have necessarily the space, the segregated spaces you need to deal with infectious diseases.”
Esper said that instead, hospital ships or field hospitals could “take the pressure off of civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases,” freeing up valuable bed space in civilian hospital rooms to treat the coronavirus.
But deploying the unstaffed hospital ships and field hospitals could mean calling up reservists who are health care professionals in the civilian world, causing them to leave communities that need their services to treat the pandemic.
Though 22 states have already activated their state National Guard, Esper said he is considering a national activation of the National Guard and/or reserves to assist states in responding to the virus.
However, he cautioned that it’s not always wise to pull these individuals from their jobs in the civilian sector, especially if they work in health care or law enforcement. Esper described it as essentially “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
“What I don’t want to do is take reservists from a hospital where they are needed just to put them on a ship to take them somewhere else where they are needed,” he said. “So we’ve got to be very conscious of that.”
Finally, another consideration is the use of the Army Corps — a unit tasked with undertaking major public infrastructure projects in the continental United States.
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While the unit does have its own staff to coordinate projects, the actual construction and logistical work is done by private contractors.
On Tuesday, the Army Corps said it had “begun assessing” its capabilities in responding to the coronavirus, likely in the arena of medical facilities construction.
They could, if necessary, issue contracts to have existing buildings like gymnasiums or dormitories be converted into temporary hospitals.