To support ongoing domestic efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, the US military will provide millions of masks to support civilian public health agencies and other responders, Pentagon leadership said Tuesday.
"The Department of Defense will make available up to 5 million N95 respirator masks and other personal protective equipment from our own strategic reserves to Health and Human Services for distribution," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said.
"The first 1 million masks will be made available immediately," he added.
"The Pentagon will be providing 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 specialized ventilators to aid in our whole of America Coronavirus response. This critical equipment will keep our health care providers safe as they care for patients," Vice President Mike Pence said on Twitter.
COVID-19 has spread to more than 5,800 people and killed nearly 100 people in the US. As the illness spreads domestically, masks and other protective equipment are becoming harder to find.
Additional support measures include providing up to 2,000 deployable ventilators to HHS and making 14 certified coronavirus testing labs available to test non-DoD personnel. "We hope this will provide excess capacity to the civilian population," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
He added that the Pentagon is also looking at the activation of National Guard and Reserve units to assist states as needed. The National Guard is already assisting in 22 states.
USNS Comfort at Naval Station Norfolk after a five-month deployment, November 15, 2019.
The military is preparing its hospital ships for possible deployment to assist during the crisis, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The US Navy has two hospital ships available, the USNS Comfort in Norfolk, Virginia, and the USNS Mercy in San Diego.
"The Comfort is undergoing maintenance, and the Mercy is at port." Esper told reporters Tuesday, revealing that the Department of Defense has already given Navy orders "to lean forward in terms of getting them ready to deploy."
The defense secretary explained that US military assets like hospital ships and field hospitals are designed for trauma response rather than matters like infectious diseases, so these assets would likely be used to take the pressure off civilian medical facilities with regard to trauma care.
Esper also said that the Army Corps of Engineers could be made available to assist states in need but suggested there might be more effective options.
The secretary stressed to reporters that "if we can dramatically reduce the spread of the virus over the next 15 days, together we can help restore public health and the economy and hasten a return to our normal way of life."
Update: This post has been updated to include the vice president's tweet, as well as clarify that the masks are going to HHS to support civilian public health agencies and other responders.
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