From field hospitals to respirator masks, Pentagon wades into coronavirus support role

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Tuesday laid out how the U.S. military would support the medical response to the coronavirus, from using its stockpile of respirator masks to potentially building field hospitals and perhaps even deploying Navy hospital ships to reduce the stress on U.S. emergency rooms.

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The moves illustrate the massive government effort that will be required to deal with the fast-spreading pandemic, with the number of cases topping 5,800 in the United States and the death toll approaching 100.

Military officials have cautioned that while the Pentagon is ready to help, most of the military’s readily available medical resources are focused on trauma care rather than infectious diseases.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday that he was considering activating National Guard and reserve military units but such a move could take weeks.

Still, Esper, like other Defense officials, said that there were limitations to what the military could provide.

“In some ways we want to be the last resort,” Esper said.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Esper cautioned that while he was willing to send the Army Corps of Engineers to help set up field hospitals, the military would have to go through a rigorous contracting process and it could be quicker to do contracting at the state or local level.

Earlier on Tuesday, the White House said it was in talks with the Pentagon about how the military can be deployed to deal with the fast-moving coronavirus, including setting up field hospitals in states with a surge in cases.

“The Army Corp of Engineers is ready, willing and able. We have to give them the go-ahead if we find that it’s going to be necessary,” President Donald Trump said.

Esper also said that he had ordered the Navy to get ready to deploy two hospital ships, if needed, to help reduce the stress on hospitals dealing with the virus.

He added however, that the ships would have to be manned by doctors who are currently working in hospitals.

“What I don’t want to do is take reservists from a hospital where they are needed, just to put them on a ship, to take them somewhere else where they are needed,” Esper said.

“We’ve got to be very conscious of that.”

The Pentagon will make available up to 5 million respirator masks and protective equipment, including 1 million immediately, from its strategic reserves for U.S. government distribution.

Esper said the Pentagon would also be prepared to distribute up to 2,000 ventilators.

He added that the U.S. military’s laboratories are available to start carrying out coronavirus tests for civilians, increasing U.S. testing capacity.

Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Susan Heavey, Gabriella Borter and Phil Stewart; Writing by Idrees Ali; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman