As Americans Shelter, Soldiers Battle COVID-19

American armed forces are on the front lines, even at home

By Andrew Thornebrooke
26 March 2020

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The hospital ship USNS Comfort. Photo by Daniel B. Serianni.*

Drowned out by the media buzz of a $2 trillion government bailout this week was announcement after announcement of the myriad ways in which the United States armed forces are taking the fight to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. 2 Naval hospital ships, 200 uniformed medical students, and 11,400 guardsmen have been called to serve the nation as first responders and protectors of vital infrastructure.

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper addressed the press concerning the push on Tuesday via a virtual town hall meeting.

“Today, we want to talk to you about all the DoD is doing to protect our people, our troops, our families from the coronavirus,” Esper said, “and what we’re also doing to support the interagency whole-of-government efforts to protect the American people.”

Esper went on to explain that the DoD was engaged in a whole-of-government support mission that includes the research and development of vaccines, the distribution of strategic stockpiles to the healthcare sector, and the deployment of field hospitals in states across the union. Still, Esper remained hopeful that the military and the American people could effectively curb the course of COVID-19.

“As this grows in scale and scope, this spread of the virus, we’re going to have to be very careful and take prudent measures to ensure we maintain that readiness, because it will become more challenging.” Esper said. “But I’m confident if we take all the right procedures, we will do that.”

As part of the military’s response to President Trump’s announcement that the nation was at war with the disease, 11,400 soldiers of the National Guard were called up across the country. The guardsmen are now providing transportation services, command and control functions, engineering, planning, and logistics support to municipalities in all 50 states at the request of local governors. In 12 states, guardsmen are directly administering tests or supporting medical professionals in their efforts in addition to keeping vital supply chains intact.

Other Guard units, such as those in Ohio, were activated as part of Operation Steady Resolve. Their initial mission is to assist 12 food banks across the state with ensuring that food and other essential items are delivered to the state’s most vulnerable populations in all 88 Ohio counties.

In terms of direct healthcare efforts, the Navy has ordered two hospital ships to provide direct relief to major metropolitan areas. The USNS Comfort will head to New York City from Norfolk this weekend, while the USNS Mercy will arrive in Los Angeles Friday, according to acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. The Mercy left San Diego with more than 800 Navy medical personnel and support staff and 70 civil service mariners. Officials also reported that about 140 Navy Reserve sailors will report to the USNS Comfort hospital ship on the East Coast within the next few days.

The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), the nation’s only federal health sciences university, announced that it would be graduating 200 medical and graduate nursing students early as part of the effort to combat COVID-19. USU President Dr. Richard Thomas is reported to have made the decision when the national emergency concerning COVID-19 was declared. Thomas spoke to the quality and training of the soon-to-be graduates.

“Our curriculum has a specific focus on threats like emerging infectious diseases and disasters that our military and Public Health Service forces are likely to encounter in the course of their careers,” Thomas said. “This instruction is based on real-life lessons learned, is woven throughout the curriculum and incorporated into our medical field exercises.”

The DoD established a joint task force to oversee the efforts being made across the armed services to handle the ever-increasing number of requests for medical and personal protective equipment from other governmental agencies. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord, announced the new Joint Acquisition Task Force Wednesday.

“The task force will synchronize the DoD acquisition response to this crisis, working closely with all the services and defense agencies,” Lord said. “The task force will leverage DoD authorities for maximum acquisition flexibility to provide resilient capability in the current health crisis.”

Though the United States earned the dubious honor of being the country with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 Thursday, there are some early indicators that the nation’s military response and quality of healthcare has worked to mitigate the worst outcomes of the disease. The United State, China, and Italy have all surpassed 80,000 cases of COVID-19, but whereas Italy has suffered over 8,000 deaths and China over 3,000, the United States has suffered just over 1,000. All of those numbers are likely to yet increase, however, as nations scramble to get testing kits to more people displaying symptoms.

Joint Staff Surgeon Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs urged caution in leaning too heavily on hope or despair when plotting the nation’s strategy for response.

“What we don’t want to do is build either a false sense of anxiety or concern or a false sense of security. What we know right now is, this is a very significant outbreak.” Friedrichs said. “It’s a global pandemic. What we need to do is make sure that we’re minimizing contact, people are staying home when they can stay home.”

“And as those situations change,” Friedrichs added, “then we’ll reassess and make the appropriate decisions based on how we minimize the risk to force and families and also preserve mission capability.”

For now, while Americans grow restless in their quarantines and watch the unemployment numbers grow, the nation’s soldiers will remain on the front lines of the war on COVID-19.

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*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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