Military ‘Ready’ to Help Fight Coronavirus but Warns of Limited Medical Capabilities

March 17, 2020 Updated: March 17, 2020
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The Pentagon says it is ready to assist with the fight against coronavirus, but warned that the military doesn’t have the capacity to set up “vast medical capabilities” at a moment’s notice like in the movies.

As proposals to enlist military assistance were floated by politicians, Pentagon officials told reporters on March 16 that the number of military hospital beds is only 2 to 3 percent of the total private sector hospital beds.

Military medical expertise and equipment are also geared up to tackle combat injuries, not infectious diseases, they said.

“There are not 1,000-bed medical centers all over the United States,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, noting that the U.S. military has a total of 36 hospitals. “They are, for the most part, small community hospitals. Our deployable hospitals range in size and range in capabilities that are very much focused and designed to take care of those in combat.”

Chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Rath Hoffman said that the department was “ready, willing, and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extent possible with the direction of the president.”

However, he warned there were certain “trade-offs” and limitations as he sought to clarify the capacity of the military’s response.

Epoch Times Photo
Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman and Joint Staff Surgeon Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs brief the media about the Defense Department’s response to COVID-19, at the Pentagon in Washington on March 16, 2020. (DoD/ Lisa Ferdinando)

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden said during the latest presidential debate that the military had the “ability to provide this surge that hospitals need,” saying that they had the capacity to “build  500 hospital beds and tents.”

Whilst the military does have tent hospitals, they are designed for trauma care, not contagious diseases, said Friedrichs.

“We’ve supported relief efforts during natural disasters. But what we’re trying to be very careful of is not over-promising, you know.”

“If we build a 200-bed or a 25-bed trauma hospital to take care of people with coronavirus, that’s not really a great solution to the coronavirus challenge.”

Friedrichs said that they had not been tasked with providing medical capabilities to any specific location. “We don’t have any 500-bed hospitals designed for infectious disease outbreaks. That does not exist in the inventory.”

Calling on medical personnel in the National Guard and other Reserves comes at a cost, said Freidrichs, because most would already be engaged with the fight with coronavirus in their civilian roles.

“If you mobilize the Guard and Reserve medical personnel from their civilian jobs, they’re no longer in their civilian jobs, and that directly impacts the community where they worked, and that’s the trade-off—whether it’s a natural disaster or the coronavirus or anything else,” Friedrichs said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a New York Times op-ed that he thought the state’s hospitals would be overwhelmed and called on the president to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers to build temporary facilities to house patients.

In reference to the possibility, President Donald Trump said on March 16 that the White House was “looking into it very strongly.”

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) told the Epoch Times via email they were aware of the request made by Governor Andrew Cuomo, but had received no official instruction.

“As a precautionary measure, USACE has begun assessing our capabilities in this area in conjunction with our partners,” said the spokesperson.”At this time, however, USACE has not been assigned a COVID-19 support mission.”

The largest temporary medical facilities available to the military are hospital ships.

Officials warned that with litters “stacked floor to the ceiling” and open-bay rooms, hospital ships would be ill-suited to an infectious disease environment, but said they could possibly assist by providing extra emergency care.

“So if, for example, a community has a large outbreak and there is a need for emergency room support or trauma support, a hospital ship’s perfectly designed to do that,” said Friedrichs.

However, Hoffman warned that even if the ships were used, there was still the staffing issue.

“Right now that ship has a bunch of merchant mariners on it who operate the ship. There aren’t 1,000 or 1,200 medical professionals with the ship waiting,” he said. “They have to come from somewhere else. So, that gets back to that staffing issue.”

Thirty-seven cases of coronavirus have been identified in the military so far, according to the Pentagon’s March 16 statement: 18 military personnel, 13 military family members, three civilian employees and three contractors.

The Defense Department has received requests for assistance with quarantining and housing of people who were evacuated from China, those who had been on the Grand Princess and Diamond Princess cruise ships, and those who flew back to the United States through 11 feeder airports and needed to be quarantined, said the officials.

“We have not received any other [requests] at this time that we have responded to,” said Hoffman.

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