WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today that two Navy hospital ships are being deployed to help respond to the COVID-19 crisis, but will not treat patients suffering from the virus and will take weeks to deploy.
The ships are the Norfolk-based USNS Comfort and San Diego-based USNS Mercy. The Comfort will dock in New York City, the Mercy at a location to be determined in California.
The ships are usually staffed by Navy reservists or civilian volunteers, raising staffing concerns if personnel are pulled from the civilian medical workforce now actively engaged in battling the crisis, Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.
The Pentagon will also make available up to 5 million N95 masks and other personal protective equipment from US strategic reserves. “The first 1 million masks will be available immediately,” Esper said.
Additionally, the Pentagon is also getting ready at least 1,000 field hospital beds along with the units to man them, not counting the ships, Joint Staff Surgeon Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs said during the same Wednesday Pentagon briefing.
At a White House event Wednesday attended by Esper, President Trump said he will be invoking the Defense Production Act to to help make up for potential medical supply shortages, according to news reports. The Defense Production Act, which was established in 1950 in response to production needs during the Korean War.
During Wednesday’s Pentagon briefing, Hoffman confirmed that an Air National Guard unit transported 500,000 swabs – used as part of the process to test for COVID-19 – from Italy to Memphis. The swabs were loaded onto FedEx aircraft and distributed around the country as directed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), he said.
Defense One first reported on the shipment of swabs, which were flown by a C-17 cargo plane using the call “Reach 911.” It landed early Tuesday morning at Memphis International Airport, they reported.
Friedrichs praised some of the nations battling COVID-19 for sharing critical information.
“The good news is the Italians, the Koreans and our other European allies are being very transparent in sharing their full data about what they’re seeing with their patient population. That’s invaluable,” he said. “That’s what every responsible country should do — should have done from day one with this so that we have a clear understanding about exactly what’s going to happen as this affects our own country.”
He also reinforced earlier statements that COVID-19 differs significantly from other flu strains.
“The difference between the two, as we’ve talked about before in other sessions and as Dr. Fauci and others have discussed, is the coronavirus is easier to spread. And as we collect more and more data, that’s becoming very clear, that the coronavirus spreads more easily than the seasonal flu does,” he said.
“So there is no question about that that there are more people right now with a flu infection and have been over the course of the flu season than there are people with the coronavirus infection,” Friedrichs said. “That does not change the fact that we are concerned as we watch how quickly the coronavirus has spread.
“We also don’t have medical countermeasures for the coronavirus like we have for the flu,” he said.
As of early Wednesday morning, there were 49 confirmed cases in the active-duty military, 14 civilians, 19 dependents and seven contractors.