If you were asking yourself what the Department of Defense is doing during this Wuhan Coronavirus crisis, Defense Secretary Mark Esper answered that question this week during a press conference in the Pentagon. The U.S. military has been heavily involved. Secretary Esper described the DoD’s activities as continuing “to take aggressive action to surge personnel, capabilities, and equipment in support of President Trump’s whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The DoD’s mobilization of forces to meet the challenge is not just active-duty forces. More than 7,000 National Guardsmen are in the mix from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.
President Trump approved the activation of National Guard units in Washington, New York, and California under Title 32 status. Under this U.S. Code, the Federal Government provides National Guard units access to the “full” measure of federal resources to help state and local first responders and municipal authorities in their relief efforts where needed.
Concerning the call up of the National Guard, there have been conspiracy theorists, who, when hearing about the mobilization, leaped to the conclusion that this meant the government would impose martial law. Secretary Esper put this rumor to bed for the Pentagon press corps quickly when he said, “To be clear, this is not a move toward martial law, as some have erroneously claimed.”
Secretary Esper explained that the Department intends to curtail some military exercises over time, and that does impact force availability. At this point, it does not impact readiness to “conduct our national missions.”
In support of harder-hit cities, including Los Angeles and New York City, the DoD is dispatching the hospital ship USNS Mercy to Los Angeles by the end of the week. Having the Mercy present with its 1,100-person crew will relieve pressure on Los Angles’ most stressed medical facilities. As Military Times reported, “The crew of the Mercy will not be caring for COVID-19 patients, but will instead take other intensive and critical care patients from Los Angeles-area hospitals.” Esper explained that the Mercy is staffed with highly trained medical professionals “eager to join this fight to start helping their fellow Americans.” The Mercy has more than a thousand beds and 12 operating rooms, but the ship cannot handle infectious diseases that require quarantine.
In two weeks, Esper explained the hospital ship USNS Comfort would be on its way to New York City to provide the same medical support mission. The hospital staff and crew of the Comfort are readying the ship now, reducing its time in maintenance to meet the demands of the needs in New York City.
The Defense Department is also deploying ground-based facilities to areas where COVID-19 has hit hardest. Five Expeditionary Medical Facilities (EMFs) available from the Army, Navy, and Air Force will be on what the DoD calls PTDO, or prepare-to-deploy orders. As domestic crisis response regulations dictate, the Defense Department will take direction from FEMA regarding exactly where to send the medical units. Within the U.S., FEMA is the manager of disaster relief and operations, as well as the allocation of resources.
That is the way it should be. The Secretary explained that he had spoken to ten governors recently, and all requested the Defense Department provide limited medical field hospitals when there isn’t enough to go around within the military’s inventory. FEMA does the triage to determine where the need is highest.
During the press conference question and answer period, Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin asked about the DoD’s ability to assist with the number of testing kits. Secretary Esper said that Defense has 16 medical laboratories available with the capability of testing at least 6,000 samples per day. With more kits, the throughput for testing can go up.
Additionally, the Defense Department has set aside five million protective masks – one million offered immediately – from the strategic stockpile. FEMA is the agency that will validate the requirements for what the DoD can provide.
Using Department of Defense resources and capabilities in times of medical crises or natural disasters requires a thoughtful balance between the exigencies of the emergency and national security challenges that are real and persistent threats. So far, our military men and women have stepped up, and we can depend on them to continue to do so.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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