The Defense Department is going all out to support civilian agencies confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, the vice director of operations for the Joint Staff said.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference yesterday that the hospital ship USNS Mercy has begun admitting patients and conducting surgeries in Los Angeles. The USNS Comfort arrived in New York yesterday and will begin seeing patients today.
Sailors look at the New York City skyline as their ship arrives.
Taliaferro emphasized that the Navy hospital ships are designed to treat casualties in war zones. The medical personnel treat trauma patients in close quarters on the 1,000-bed ships and are not really optimized for infectious disease, he said. ''So, that's why the operational concept is that they kind of take that trauma and acute care capacity off of the local hospitals where it's much, much more effective to treat infectious disease.''
The Army has deployed personnel to New York and Seattle, and they are working in Federal Emergency Management Agency hospitals. In New York, they are helping to staff the treatment facility in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. In Seattle, they are staffing a facility at the CenturyLink Field Event Center.
''To speed our response, we flew the medical specialists ahead to be able to fall in and start working immediately while their traditional equipment is a few days behind,'' Taliaferro said.
Soldiers board a commercial aircraft.
In New York, there are 45 patients at the Javits Center, he said. That number is expected to rise quickly, according to New York officials.
Taliaferro also noted that Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper deployed a Navy expeditionary medical facility, splitting the unit between Dallas and New Orleans. Medical personnel are flying to the cities and will begin operations as soon as possible, he added.
Nationwide, close to 15,000 National Guardsmen are supporting the effort. Esper has approved federal funding for the state missions these soldiers and airmen are performing.
The general said DOD is totally in support of FEMA, which is leading this whole-of-government effort and will help where it can and where it makes sense. He noted that DOD has around 1,300 hospital beds, whereas the rest of the country has nearly a million beds.
Soldiers set up cots in a gym.
DOD can make a difference with expeditionary facilities, and it is mobilizing those capabilities, Taliafero said. ''We're challenged to generate large capacities,'' he added. ''We're still working hard to be part of the solution quickly and proactively, but always in partnership with FEMA.''
Taliaferro said the department is calling up medical professionals from reserve component units, but the services must be deliberate. Many of the doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians and other medical personnel who are in the reserve components also work at local hospitals, and they are already on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. It doesn’t make sense to call these folks to duty in the middle of the pandemic, the general said.
Medics treat a patient.
He noted that all military installations are at least at Force Health Protection Condition Charlie, meaning the threat is substantial because of sustained community transmission. ''But it's also important that commanders tailor any additional measures to their specific needs, because every mission is different,'' he said.
Where commanders have found additional risks in the environments, they have taken additional countermeasures. ''Where missions are different, different risks have to be accepted. … Crew members in an airplane are going to have to get closer together,'' Taliaferro said. ''That's just the way it is to get our mission done.''