President Donald Trump said Monday that he might order the Army Corps of Engineers to build tent facilities to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, although Pentagon officials said earlier that the military's ability to assist is limited.
"We're looking into it," Trump said at a White House news conference, referring to the Corps constructing tent facilities to increase the number of hospital beds available for coronavirus isolation. "And we're looking into it very strongly."
At an earlier briefing, Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said the department is considering "a number of options on what we can do," but the main focus within the military is on protecting the force and maintaining readiness.
Hoffman and Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, said there have been no requests for Defense Department assistance in coping with the coronavirus outbreak beyond providing temporary housing at several military bases for U.S. citizens returning from China or vacation cruises.
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They said there are also other factors to be taken into account before ordering the Corps of Engineers to start constructing tent facilities for coronavirus patients.
The military lacks the doctors, nurses, orderlies and equipment needed to staff a facility for isolation patients "even if we were able to build the tents," Hoffman said.
"Have we looked at it? Absolutely," Friedrichs said when asked whether the military is exploring possibilities for assisting the civilian sector in coping with the epidemic. However, there would be trade-offs involved, he said.
Mobilization of medical personnel in the National Guard and Reserves would have consequences, Friedrichs said. By calling them up, they would "no longer be in their civilian jobs" where they might be needed on the local level in combating coronavirus.
The department has a number of mobile tent facilities on standby for deployment to combat zones in emergencies, but those were designed for treating trauma and would be of little use in dealing with coronavirus, he added.
"The challenge is, if we build a 200-bed or a 25-bed trauma hospital to take care of people with coronavirus, that's not really a great solution to the coronavirus challenge," Friedrichs said. "We don't have any 500-bed hospitals designed for infectious disease outbreaks. That does not exist in the inventory."
He said the military is trying to be very careful about not overpromising on the assistance it can provide.
"We want to be factual about what we have," he said, explaining that the military health system's fixed facilities "are designed to the force that we have."
In addition, the staff for the most part is not trained for infectious diseases, Friedrichs said.
The military has 36 hospitals nationwide, which have extremely limited capacity to take in civilian patients, he said.
"They are not thousand-bed medical centers all over the United States, with the exception of the Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They are, for the most part, small community hospitals."
Military hospitals account for only 2-3% of the nation's total hospital beds, Hoffman said.
"What we do have are these tailorable packages" in the form of mobile tent facilities, "and some of them can move very quickly by airplane. Others are much larger like hospital ships," such as the USNS Comfort, Friedrichs said.
However, the contribution the Comfort could make to containing the coronavirus outbreak is questionable, he said. The ship has little space for isolating patients, who are mostly kept in beds stacked four the ceiling, Friedrichs said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.