The Return of M*A*S*H: Army Corps on Standby to Build Tent Hospitals, White House Says

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FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Army medical personnel under the 803rd Medical Center assemble a field hospital tent during the Combat Support Tactical Exercise in Fort McCoy, Wis., Aug. 12, 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Gary A. Witte, 207th Regional Support Group)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Army medical personnel under the 803rd Medical Center assemble a field hospital tent during the Combat Support Tactical Exercise in Fort McCoy, Wis., Aug. 12, 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Gary A. Witte, 207th Regional Support Group)

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that military mobile hospitals are on standby to back up local hospitals in combating the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to the mobile hospitals, Trump said that the Army Corps of Engineers has been alerted to be ready to renovate empty buildings to serve as isolation units for a potential surge of coronavirus patients, which could overwhelm local facilities.

Trump referred to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units, made famous by the TV show about the Korean War, starring Alan Alda. The last MASH unit was deactivated in 2006, however, its successor was combat support hospitals, which transitioned to modular field hospitals in 2017.

Trump said the military is "ready, willing and able" to commit field hospital units and the Corps of Engineers, but "we're starting the process" to mobilize them. No final decisions have been made, he said.

Although preparations are underway, the military resources will be called upon only "if we think we need them," Trump said at a White House news conference with his coronavirus task force.

Related: Trump Wants Quick Checks Sent to Public in Virus Response

The president said Monday that he was looking into the possibility of mobilizing the Corps of Engineers, and his statements Tuesday suggest that he is closer to giving the order.

Should the military be given the go-ahead, field hospitals and the Corps of Engineers would likely deploy first to the hardest-hit areas -- New York, California and Washington state, Vice President Mike Pence said.

Trump said he has been in contact with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pleaded for assistance from the military.

"It's only a matter of time before our state's [intensive care unit] beds fill up," Cuomo said at a news conference Monday. "The federal government must act."

He added that the Corps of Engineers has "tremendous capacity."

"This is what they do, this is what they do. They build hospitals," Cuomo said.

However, Pentagon officials cautioned Monday that there are limits to what the military may be able to contribute in battling the pandemic.

"The Department of Defense is ready, willing and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extent possible at the direction of the president," Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said at a briefing Monday. "We just want to make sure that the conversation that we have is informed by the facts of what is possible and what is not and what those trade-offs are."

The military's small mobile tent hospitals are designed for treatment of combat trauma and would be ill-suited for isolation of coronavirus patients, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon.

Friedrichs also cautioned that the doctors who staff MASH units are trained to deal with trauma, not infectious diseases.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Read more: More COVID-19 coverage

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