THE PENTAGON ON MONDAY pushed back against an idea former Vice President Joe Biden proposed at a Democratic presidential debate Sunday night for how the military could support federal efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“I would call out the military now,” Biden said at the debate in Washington, D.C., against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “They have the ability to provide this surge that hospitals need. … They have the capacity to build 500 hospital beds and tents that are completely safe and secure. It’s a national emergency, and I would call out the military.”
Military officials, however, said during a briefing Monday afternoon about the coronavirus – which causes a disease known as COVID-19 – that the rapid-response medical capabilities currently at their disposal might not provide much help.
“The challenge is, they’re designed to take care of trauma patients and combat casualties,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the surgeon for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said during a press briefing. “We don’t have a lot of 500-bed hospitals designed for contagious disease outbreaks.”
“What we’re trying to be careful of is not over-promising,” Friedrichs said.
He and Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, who also spoke at the briefing, said that the mobile hospital facilities the military can rapidly deploy do not typically isolate patients as medical professionals would need to contain the spread of a disease like the coronavirus. Rather, they keep patients together in common spaces and sometimes stack beds four-high to maximize space – the kind of grouping that would have the opposite effect of containment.
Hoffman also pushed back on other suggestions, including that the federal government activate medical professionals from National Guard or military Reserve units, pointing out that these service members often hold similar civilian jobs and that redirecting them would take those capabilities out of their local communities.
“The limiting factor being personnel,” Hoffman said. “Even if were able to build tents for hospitals, we still need the doctors, we still need the nurses, we still need the orderlies, we still need the equipment.”
Friedrichs also resisted the notion that the U.S. could activate one of the Merchant Mariner ships it deploys worldwide to serve as a floating hospital for health crises, adding that they, similarly, do not currently have full-time medical professionals already on board and that those professionals would need to come from somewhere else.
Hospitals around the country have not yet reported overwhelming numbers of coronavirus patients but that potential reality has become a chief concern for first responders and local leaders, particularly as U.S. officials learn more about the spread of the virus in places like China, Iran and Italy where an incubation period voided any attempts to prevent contaminated travelers from entering the country.