WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, after weeks of reeling in the face of COVID-19, is beginning to shift from reactive to proactive mode in how to deal with the virus threat in the continental United States.
Pentagon officials have said they are finalizing plans to have medical rapid deployment squads ready to hopscotch across the country, ahead of the COVID-19 curve, in an attempt to staunch the spread of the disease peaking and creating new hot zones.
Anticipating the next hot spots would be a new task for military planners to work with medical professionals and urban planners. Already the Pentagon is anticipating increased needs in Chicago, New Orleans, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and the Washington, D.C., area.
To create such medical rapid deployment squads, the Pentagon is eyeing a call of former medical personnel as well as civilian medical volunteers.
They would help support an expansion of field hospitals and medical centers transformed from hotels, college dorms, and other available space, officials have said.
President Trump alluded to this plan in his recent public remarks, noting that “New York will be getting about 1,000 medical military because that’s what they need.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has faced criticism by some for delegating tough choices over how to slow the virus to local commanders, resulting in confusion from a mishmash of actions that focus on readiness rather than actions to contain the virus, some members of the military and Congress have said.
The Pentagon’s strategy is receiving support from some on Capitol Hill.
“I expect DoD to use its broad expertise and capacity to help across the board – field hospital construction, supply chain support, transportation, and direct medical support. I support and encourage it because it will save lives,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Talk Media News.
Gallego said there had a been a “lack of leadership” coming out of the Pentagon. “If you try to treat it as a readiness problem you are never going to get on top of this,” he said. “You need to treat it as a public health problem.”
He said a strong proactive Pentagon role is critical because “incompetence has been the message from the top, which has led to hollowed out agencies most suited for this crisis like HHS and DHS to respond ineffectually.
“Predictably, this approach means that DoD increasingly will have to pick up the slack, both because it’s the biggest agency and because this is becoming a national security crisis in the broadest sense,” Gallego said.
Pentagon officials are building a template from what they are doing to provide assistance to New Your City, onecurrent COVID-19 hot zones, for use in the rest of the nation.
In New York City, the Army Corps of Engineers has led the transformation of the Javits convention center into a hospital. It is to have 1,700 beds ready by this Friday, Pentagon officials said.
The center has already treated 44 COVID patients.
The city now has 775 military medical personnel with 225 to arrive today and 500 more on Wednesday. Eleven New York City hospitals will share 355 of the arriving medical personnel, Pentagon officials said.
“DoD continues to surge assets to New York in preparation for the worst,” Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman told reporters on Monday.
The new Pentagon template takes a page from the plan orchestrated by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in September 2018 in advance of Hurricane Florence hitting the U.S. mainland.
“The tactics, as you know, were to surround it (the hurricane) on the seaward side and the landward side, but keep people out of the actual area forecasted to be hit,” Mattis said then. “So, we had troops who were ready to go and follow the storm in from both directions.”
Esper said the goal is to “stay ahead of need” and that expeditionary medical units must all be manned by medical personnel. He said the majority of them are drawn from Reserve units. If those personnel are called to active duty to man military medical facilities, they will need to be pulled from their civilian jobs elsewhere, he said over the weekend.
“We’ve been very careful to say that there’s no bright lines, things we won’t consider,” Hoffman said. “Every day we’re going to get up, we’re going to look at where the virus is, we’re going to look at how it’s impacting the Department of Defense, and we’re going to make decisions to balance what the risk is, what missions we need to accomplish that day, and what the impact is going to be long-term.”