Both the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are taking steps to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic. As the situation continues to evolve, both DoD and VA are basing their moves on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
* Spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said at a Pentagon press conference that DoD will help support civilian efforts, but cautioned that assets are limited: “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 tradeoffs are.”
“Our fixed facilities are designed for the force we have. There are not thousand-bed medical centers all over the United States,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon. While the military health-care system has the capacity to set up tent hospitals, those are set up to treat trauma and combat casualties, as opposed to the kind of medical care needed for infectious disease, pneumonia-related complications and a wide array of underlying diseases that often present in those that succumb to this virus.
* Defense Secretary Mark Esper has outlined a plan for DoD to provide as many as 2,000 deployable ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services, and offer five million N95 surgical masks to states where supplies are short. The San Diego-based hospital ship Mercy, with its 1,000 bed capacity, is being readied for deployment, likely somewhere on the West Coast. The Norfolk, VA based Comfort is currently undergoing maintenance and might not be ready to sail until mid-April (ouch), with New York City a likely port.
* Tent hospitals also could be provided, but they would likely have to be staffed by reservists – most of whom hold civilian health-care jobs and presumably would be otherwise occupied. (Perhaps civilians with relevant skillsets and training could be pressed into service to form an auxiliary staff – but DoD has cautioned that Hollywood in the past has portrayed its civilian-medical triage capabilities out of proportion to what they actually are.)
* Hiring at DoD facilities is limited to people who live within immediate commuting distance of facilities.
* Commissaries have the authority to limit purchases of high-demand items such as toilet paper and staples, to discourage hoarding.
* Service members and beneficiaries are being advised to stay home if they are sick, and keep sick children home from school. Should a family member test positive for COVID-19, everyone in the family should stay home. Older people and those with serious health conditions also should stay home.
* Travel restrictions took effect on March 13. Service members, DoD civilians and family members can no longer travel domestically. This applies to permanent-change-of-station (PCS) moves and temporary duty. Service members may only take local leave. The restrictions will remain in effect through May 11.
* Facilities and offices have increased their health-condition protection level status – to include the Pentagon, Armed Forces Retirement homes in Mississippi and the District of Columbia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and other locations. Bases across the country and overseas are taking comparable steps.
* Numerous exercises, such as U.S. Africa Command’s Phoenix Express, have been canceled. Phoenix Express was to have taken place next month.
* Several states have declared emergencies. Their respective governors have mobilized National Guard units to help fight the virus. Meanwhile, numerous reserve-component units have canceled weekend drills for the foreseeable future.
* VA has taken steps to protect nursing home and spinal cord injury patients. Nursing homes and spinal cord-treatment facilities are enforcing strict no-visitors policy, except in cases where patients are near death. In those cases, visitors are only allowed to enter patients’ rooms. The homes also have suspended new admissions. Staffers are being screened daily for presence of the virus.