Field Medical Centers, Hospital Ships Deploying Soon as Pandemic Continues

The Pentagon is preparing to deploy field hospitals in addition to the Navy’s two hospital ships to help alleviate pressure on the medical communities fighting the new coronavirus outbreak, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper maintains that the military cannot address everyone’s needs.

Esper, speaking to reporters March 23, said five field hospitals and expeditionary medical centers are on prepare-to-deploy orders, and are awaiting approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He expects these hospitals, including 248-bed Army tent facilities, will deploy to Seattle and New York City to help alleviate overcrowded hospitals.

The USNS Mercy and Comfort are also preparing to deploy to Los Angeles and New York City, respectfully. These ships have collected staff and supplies, with the Mercy expected to deploy within the week. Together, the ships and field hospitals will be able to take on trauma and other similar cases, which in turn will free up beds in traditional hospitals for COVID-19 care.

Esper said he has spoken with multiple state governors, but the Pentagon “can’t meet everybody’s needs” in helping with the coronavirus outbreak. The military hospitals can help local agencies meet their temporary needs, while building up capacity in other facilities, such as hotels and college dormitories, to take in more patients.

Across the country, U.S. Army North has 10 “defense coordinating elements” collocated with FEMA operations centers to help synchronize requests for military help.

At the Defense Department headquarters, the Pentagon has further restricted visitors to limit the outbreak. There are fewer access points and more stringent requirements for entry to the building, Esper said. The increased measures could also include medical screening, such as testing for fevers upon entry.

Esper said he has not been tested for the virus, but he has been screened for fevers.

For now, Esper said he is not worried about the readiness of the military as the outbreak spreads even though some exercises have been canceled. More cases are expected, but “it will not affect our ability to conduct national security missions both at home and abroad,” Esper said.

On March 24, the military is expected to release new guidance to military health facilities to limit elective surgeries to “free up medical capacity and resources” to focus on COVID-19, Esper said.

The military has 16 labs testing for COVID-19 cases, with the capacity to run 6,000 tests per day. However, there is still a lack of test kits and once that is addressed, the military can test more.

As of March 23, there are 133 COVID-19 cases within the Active duty ranks, 44 civilian, 35 dependents, and 31 contractors, with one contractor death so far.