SecDef: First Army Field Hospitals Likely Bound for NYC, Seattle

Pentagon Press Briefing Room before Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper briefs the media
The Pentagon Press Briefing Room before Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper briefs the media about the department's COVID-19 response, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., March 17, 2020. (DoD photo/Lisa Ferdinando)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that Army field hospitals will likely be sent first to New York City and Seattle in the coronavirus fight, while cautioning that the military can't meet all of the states' growing demands for help.

Esper also announced that he is putting the Pentagon and its grounds on "Health Protection Condition C," which will limit access points to the building, allow more personnel to telework, and provide for "some medical screening" of entrants, possibly including temperature checks.

In addition, he said the military is attempting to abide by social distancing and other guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in some cases it is impossible, he added.

"Tell me how I do six feet social distancing in an attack submarine," he said.

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At a Pentagon news conference, Esper said that a total of five military field hospitals are ready to be shipped; the first two are likely to go to New York City and Seattle, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have the final say.

He did not describe what type of field hospital would be sent to the cities, but said the largest has about 278 beds.

Much like the hospital ships USNS Mercy, deploying to Los Angeles, and USNS Comfort, slated for New York harbor, the military field hospitals will not treat coronavirus cases, but will focus on other patients to ease the burden in local hospitals.

In the "whole of government" battle against coronavirus, the military is running into the same supply problems that the nation's governors have stressed, Esper said.

He added that the military's 16 labs are capable of processing up to 6,000 coronavirus tests daily, but their capacity is limited by a lack of test kits.

"We have excess capacity in our labs," Esper said. "The issue is test kits. As more of them come on board, we can test more."

He noted that the severity and duration of the coronavirus epidemic is likely to worsen, along with increasing demands from the states that the military will be unable to meet.

"I've spoken with seven, eight, nine, 10 governors so far. Each one of them has had requests for field hospitals. Those who have been along the coastline have talked about the need for ships, so we clearly can't meet everybody's needs with what we have in our inventory," Esper said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

Read more: The Latest on the Military's COVID-19 Response

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