On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the Defense Department will be providing five million N95 masks and an additional 2,000 ventilators to the national effort aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus known as Covid-19 as well as the treatment of the ill. The masks and ventilators have been stored in America’s strategic reserves for use in the event of an emergency.
Esper, who outlined a number of ways the Pentagon can support America’s medical infrastructure, said the first million masks will go out immediately, with the other four million being distributed rapidly in the coming days.
The global spread of Covid-19 has created a shortage of N95 masks used by healthcare workers to protect them from transmission of the virus. Officials have been urging Americans not to hoard masks for weeks, as concern about the shortage grew. The addition of 5 million more N95 masks will not completely solve the mask shortage problem, but will be a welcome addition to dwindling supplies in medical facilities around the country.
The 2,000 ventilators Esper promised are intended to help treat patients that may need intensive care as a result of Covid-19 infection, though Esper pointed out that these ventilators are not identical to those utilized by healthcare professionals, so they will require some training before they can be put into direct use.
Esper also volunteered the fourteen military labs currently capable of testing for Covid-19 to support broadening testing efforts around the country. He then added that the military could potentially set up field hospitals to support America’s medical infrastructure, but warned that doing so should be done strategically. Many of these hospitals would likely be staffed by reservists who may currently be working in jobs that are essential to America’s response, and he doesn’t want to pull them away from those roles for an activation unless necessary.
“We have to be very conscious of that,” Esper said. “As I’ve talked to a couple of governors today, we talked about that, and I think people are beginning to understand what that trade-off means.”
Esper also pointed out that while orders are already underway for the Navy hospital ship Mercy to prepare to support America’s medical needs, but he was quick to point out that ships like the USNS Mercy and deployable tent medical centers the military is accustomed to using are oriented toward trauma care, rather than infectious disease control.
Esper points out that these facilities could still be helpful, however, as they can absorb trauma care needs from hospitals, freeing them up for focus on treating patients that may become seriously ill.
Importantly, Esper emphasized the military’s commitment to supporting America’s response to the coronavirus, while also keeping its eye on the national security ball.
“In my conversations with governors and members of Congress about the DOD’s resources, I’ve made it clear that we will continue to support the administration’s comprehensive efforts and the country every step of the way, while ensuring our nation’s security remains the top priority of the Department of Defense,” Esper said.
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