DOD Deploying Medical Personnel, More on Standby As COVID-19 Cases Surge

The Defense Department deployed dozens of medical personnel to two states and one territory to bolster civilian medical facilities battling COVID-19, and hundreds more remain on standby as the pandemic surges.

Sixty-seven Air Force nurses and other personnel deployed to hospitals and long-term care facilities in North Dakota, while 62 medical personnel deployed to three hospitals in El Paso, Texas, and a critical care team is now working at a hospital in Guam. DOD personnel also are helping with telemedicine on the island, said Kenneth R. Rapuano, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, in a Nov. 24 briefing. In addition, there are hundreds of personnel on prepare-to-deploy orders, and more than 20,000 National Guardsmen deployed across 52 states and territories to help with pandemic response, he said.

While the number of cases of the novel coronavirus are dramatically increasing, the Defense Department’s response has not been as high profile as early on in the outbreak—when, for example, field hospitals and Navy ships were deployed. This is largely because the high number of cases is spread across the country, as opposed to being concentrated in large cities such as New York City, and medical professionals “have essentially developed enhanced treatment capabilities” that reduce the amount of time most patients are in hospitals, Rapuano said.

U.S. military bases across the globe have increased their health protection conditions based on local conditions, including the Pentagon, which will increase its protection condition on Nov. 26, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said during the briefing.

The military’s testing capacity has also increased from earlier in the pandemic, with 158 labs currently operating and processing about 70,000 tests per week with the capacity to surge to 300,000 tests, said Dr. Lee E. Payne, the assistant director for combat support at the Defense Health Agency and a retired Air Force major general. While DHA has seen supply challenges like the rest of the country, it has been able to largely work around them and meet about 99 percent of the required tests per week, he said.

Airmen in-process at the Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus in El Paso
U. S. Air Force medical personnel are welcomed to the Hospitals of Providence Transmountain in El Paso, Texas, on Nov. 8, 2020 by departing medical personnel of the National Disaster Medical System. Photo: Sgt. Samantha Hall./Army

As of Nov. 23, there have been 74,992 COVID-19 cases among U.S. military members and 11 deaths, including a member of the Hawaii Air National Guard who died Nov. 15. The 52-year-old Airman, who has not been identified, was assigned to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, the Hawaii Guard said in a release. The death marks the second for the Air National Guard, and the Air Force as a whole. The Texas Air National Guard announced the death of a Guardsman earlier this month.