Esper: Defense Department Has 'Stayed Ahead of Need' When It Comes to Dealing With Virus

By Susan Jones | April 6, 2020 | 7:00am EDT
A temporary hospital is set up at the Jacob K. Javits Center on March 27, 2020 in New York. (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)
A temporary hospital is set up at the Jacob K. Javits Center on March 27, 2020 in New York. (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Department of Defense, since January, has been "all-in and ahead of the curve when it comes to responding to the coronavirus," Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN's "State of the Union" with Jake Tapper on Sunday.

Esper noted that 50,000-plus American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines "are on the streets of America today, helping out their fellow Americans."

That includes more than 1,000 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals deployed in several cities, including New York; and another 1,100 additional doctors and nurses and other medical professionals who are on their way to New York.

"The bulk of them will go to the Javits Center," Esper said. "And then, as of late yesterday, we agreed to deploy a few hundred of them to 11 New York City hospitals that are also seeing a deficiency when it comes to medical staff.

"What's interesting, Jake, is...we will soon be taking over the Javits Center, a 2,500-bed capacity. To show you how all-in we are, the United States military will soon be running the largest hospital in the United States. That shows you our commitment."

In addition to the manpower, the Navy has moved the hospital ship Comfort to New York and the hospital ship Mercy to Los Angeles. Those two ships were supposed to take non-Covid-infected patients, to free up room in city hospitals for the anticipated crush of people with the virus.

But, as Tapper noted, "our latest numbers show that there are only a few dozen patients on those ships combined. What's the reason for that?" Tapper asked. "And why not allow coronavirus patients on those ships as well, given the fact that these outbreaks are -- it's a really dire situation in Los Angeles and New York?"

Esper responded:

Well, first of all, we have worked these plans out closely with New York State and New York City. I would say a major reason why is, those two ships are ahead of need. As I said up front, DOD has been ahead of this curve from the beginning.

So, whether it's the ships, the field hospitals, or our preparation of eight sites around the country where we built hospitals, another 22 that will come online in the next two weeks, we have stayed ahead of need here. That's factor number one.

Number two is, as the ships pulled in, we learned, as a result of coronavirus, we're seeing fewer trauma cases. So the plan was to take trauma cases aboard both ships, freeing up much needed room space in a hospital where you can segregate patients, you can treat them for coronavirus.

And that way, you keep the Comfort and Mercy free to deal strictly with trauma patients, and not infect the trauma patients with coronavirus. As we see now, the problem is far greater when it comes to coronavirus. That's why we have opened up the Javits Center and the other expanded hospitals around the country for coronavirus.

And we're prepared to leverage the Mercy and Comfort as well to do that. I have given authority to the Northcom commander to make that call when he needs to make the call.

But the important thing to know is that those ships have something that nobody else possesses. They possess the ability to move quickly around the country along the shoreline to deliver a 1,000-bed hospital with hundreds of doctors, nurses and technicians.

So, we want -- if we're going to lose that capability, we want to lose it as a last alternative.

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