Photo by Army Sgt. Michael Walters
Misook Choe, a Laboratory Manager with the Emerging Infectious Disease branch at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, conducts studies in order to find a solution for the Coronavirus, March 3, 2020. The Emerging Infectious Diseases branch, established in 2018, has the explicit mission to survey, anticipate and counter the mounting threat of emerging infectious diseases of key importance to U.S. forces in the homeland and abroad.
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The Defense Department issued a statement Monday, declaring the DoD ready to help with the coronavirus, in any way. The declaration comes amid increasing fear, panic and concern over the spread of the novel coronavirus, and it’s accompanying disease, COVID-19. However, the Defense Department quickly cautioned to temper expectations as to that response.

DoD Ready to Help Fight Coronavirus

The statement comes as many pundits begin posing questions about the U.S. military’s ability to activate and fight the spread of COVID-19. Now a fully recognized global pandemic, President Trump said on Monday the virus could continue to spread deep into summer months.

“The Department of Defense is ready, willing and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extend possible with the direction of the president,” said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, according to a DoD release. “We just want to make sure that the conversation that is being had is informed by the facts of what is possible, what is not, and what those trade-offs are.”

However, both Hoffman and Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, cautioned not to overestimate Defense Department capabilities. Standing up vast medical responses across the country isn’t necessarily plausible. Military hospitals comprise only 2-3 percent of beds found in the private sector. DoD facilities remain limited, according to a DoD release. Large numbers would likely overwhelm most military hospitals.

“Many of them are configured to support, as you might imagine, our immediate military needs,” Friedrichs said, according to a DoD release. “They take care of the active duty population and their families and some retirees. Some large facilities such as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, have much more diverse services,” he added. “We have a number of smaller facilities in more remote locations, like Fort Wainwright, Alaska, [which] has a small hospital that offers obstetrical services and basic community hospital type services,” the Joint Staff surgeon said.

Resources, Manpower Limited

Most military medicine also focuses on wartime injuries, not communicable diseases. COVID-19 presents unique challenges military doctors don’t often face.

“Our doctors are, unsurprisingly, trained highly in traumatic injuries and [for] dealing with traumatic injuries,” Hoffman said, according to a DoD release. “We have a much younger population that we’re dealing with treating in our hospitals. And so all of these kind of factor into what is that capability we have for a potential outbreak that generally has been more devastating to older persons who require a different type of attention than we normally do.”

Further, Friedrichs downplayed the military’s ability to effectively treat massive numbers. However, neither deployable units or fixed facilities can handle the numbers some experts say will become infected with COVID-19.

“We do have tent hospitals. They are deployable hospitals. … The challenge is they’re designed to take care of trauma patients and combat casualties,” he said. “We have supported humanitarian operations. … We’ve supported relief efforts during natural disasters. But what we’re trying to be very careful of is not over-promising, you know. We want to be factual about what we have.

Military Help Presents Tradeoffs

“Our fixed facilities are designed to the force that we have,” he continued. “There are not thousand-bed medical centers all over the United States. They are, for the most part, small community hospitals. Our deployable hospitals range in size and range in capabilities that are very much focused and designed to take care of those in combat.”

To complicate matters even more, activating National Guard and Reserve components would add doctors to defense capabilities. However, it would take them directly from civilian hospitals, according to DoD.

“If you mobilize the Guard and Reserve medical personnel from their civilian jobs, they’re no longer in their civilian jobs, and that directly impacts the community where they worked, and that’s the trade-off that — whether it’s a natural disaster, or the coronavirus or anything else — that’s part of the trade-off that we look at as we offer options going forward,” Friedrichs said, according to DoD.

Thus far, DoD issued assistance to outside agencies to help quarantine Americans returning from travel abroad. Firstly, DoD helped house Americans evacuated from China. Then came the Grand princess and Diamond Princess cruise ships passengers. Finally, DoD assisted in quarantining United States citizens flying home from international locales.

So far, DoD reports 37 cases of COVID-19 in its community. Along with 18 military personnel, 13 family members, three civilians and three contractors also contracted the illness.

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