By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 17, 2020) -- As part of the president's whole-of-government approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the Defense Department has agreed to provide medical supplies and capabilities to the Department of Health and Human Services to help combat further infections, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said.
The Defense Department will make available up to 5 million respirator masks and other personal protective equipment from its strategic reserves to the Department of Health and Human Services for distribution, Esper said during a news conference at the Pentagon today, adding that the first million masks would be made available immediately.
Esper said some 2,000 deployable ventilators would also be made available to HHS. Those devices, he said, are different from civilian equivalents and will require special training for civilian users, so DOD personnel likely will provide that training.
To help measure the spread of the coronavirus, the Defense Department has also made 14 certified testing labs available to test non-DOD personnel, and two labs would be added to that total, the secretary said.
Additionally, Esper said, DOD officials are considering use of the National Guard, the Reserve components, and capabilities such as the Navy's hospital ships USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy. He said the Comfort is undergoing maintenance now and the Mercy is in port.
"We've already given orders to the Navy, a few days ago, to lean forward in terms of getting them ready to deploy," Epser said.
But while those ships and other DOD medical facilities such as hospitals and tent-based deployable medical facilities do provide capability, the secretary said, those capabilities are geared in many cases toward trauma care, rather than patients with COVID-19.
"They don't necessarily have the space, the segregated space, you need to deal with infectious disease," he said. Still, he added, those facilities might be used to take loads off civilian medical facilities so those civilian facilities might treat COVID-19 cases.
"One of the ways you could use the field hospitals, the hospital ships or things in between is to take the pressure off the civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases to open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases," Esper said.
He also pointed out that DOD medical facilities such as the Navy medical ships require staff, and getting that staff in place means pulling them from elsewhere.
"All those doctors and nurses either come from our medical treatment facilities, or they come from the reserves, which means civilians," Esper said. "What we have to be very conscious of and careful of as we ... use them to support the states [is] that we aren't robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. 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."
Esper spent the first part of the day today visiting some of the DOD doctors and scientists at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who are working on advancing vaccine and treatment efforts to combat the coronavirus. While there, he said, he visited both the Army Medical Research and Development Command and the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to learn about those efforts.
"They have incredible capabilities," he said. "They're well-knitted, extremely well-knitted into the interagency efforts."
Esper said he learned at Fort Detrick that the expectation is about 12 to 18 months for a vaccine, but that facilities there have the ability to help in vaccine production if a private-sector facility were to develop a vaccine earlier. He also said he was told Fort Detrick officials will soon increase their capacity to conduct virus testing with the purchase of new equipment.
"In my conversations with governors and members of Congress about the DOD's resources, I've made it clear that we will 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 Defense," Esper said.