Pentagon to Give 5 Million Respirator Masks and 2,000 Ventilators to HHS

March 18, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020

The Pentagon will give 5 million respirator masks and up to 2,000 ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from the military’s strategic reserve in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on March 17.

Esper told reporters from the Pentagon press briefing room Tuesday that 1 million respirator masks would be made available immediately, but added that the ventilators are designed for use by deployed troops and the military will need to train civilians on how to use them properly. Others may have “single-use” limitations, the Defense Secretary added.

“When you look at the number of people that are projected that may need ventilators, 2,000 doesn’t really put much of a dent into it, but we can offer what we have,” Esper said.

“The key thing is the private sector, the manufacturing side, whoever makes medical machines of this type. How do you prime that pump to get production up because we are simply not going to be able to meet the demand if the demand fits some of the profiles as we’ve seen the CDC brief,” he said.

The announcement comes after The New York Times reported that hospitals and health care providers are running out of N95 respirators, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says are the most effective when it comes to protecting health care professionals against the disease, which causes COVID-19.

Several hospitals the publication spoke to said they had little more than a month’s supply of respirator masks left and were facing difficulties restocking them.

“We can’t get any. Everything’s back ordered,” Dr. Marc Habert, a pediatrician in Fishkill, New York, whose group works from eight offices in three counties, told The New York Times. “I was on a phone call earlier with the local department of health and they basically said the state has supplies, but we need to show we tried to order from three separate places first.”

Also on Tuesday, Esper said the Defense Department is considering activating National Guard and Reserve units to help “assist states with planning, logistics, and medical support as needed,” but cautioned against taking medical professionals from “a hospital where they are needed.” So far, nearly 1,500 Guard members have been activated in 18 states in response to the virus, he said.

In addition, Esper said that he and other top DOD officials will speak with state and local leaders to see if field hospitals are needed.

“In my conversations with governors and members of Congress about DOD’s resources, I’ve made it clear that we’ll continue to support the administration’s comprehensive efforts and the country every step of the way while ensuring our nation’s security remains the top priority of the Department of the Defense,” Esper said.