WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's role in responding to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States is rapidly expanding, with the likely deployment of Navy hospital ships and Army field hospitals.
But the military faces limits. Its health care system is geared more toward handling combat casualties than infectious diseases. And there are logistical and legal concerns about expanding the military’s role in civilian affairs, such as tasking it with enforcing quarantines.
More National Guard troops are being tapped by the states, and the Pentagon is considering activating Guard and Reserve units at the federal level to help states with planning, logistics and medical support.
A 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship is being sent to New York to relieve pressure on hospitals bracing for an expected surge in coronavirus patients, officials announced Wednesday.
The USNS Comfort, which was sent to New York after 9/11, would bolster the health care system by treating non-coronavirus patients while hospitals treat people with COVID-19.
The announcement of the Comfort's planned deployment comes as New York City-area hospitals are clearing out beds, setting up new spaces to triage patients and urging people with mild symptoms to consult health professionals by phone or video chat instead of overrunning emergency rooms.
On March 11, the U.S. Department of Defense announced travel restrictions for service members and families traveling through Level 3 restricted locations. For 60 days, military personnel cannot travel to the restricted locations.
"The Department of Defense's top priority remains the protection and welfare of our people. While directing this prudent action, I continue to delegate all necessary authority to commanders to make further decisions based on their assessments to protect their people and ensure mission readiness. While we deal with this fluid and evolving situation, I remain confident in our ability to protect our service members, civilians and families," said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.