Military Medical School to Graduate Students Early, Rush to COVID-19 Response

Vice Adm. Forrest Faison is the keynote speaker for the 40th Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences graduation.
Vice Adm. Forrest Faison serves as keynote speaker for the 40th Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences graduation held at National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall May 18, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Paul Kotara II)

For the first time in its 48-year history, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences will graduate its fourth-year medical school students and graduate-level nurses early to support the U.S. military's war on COVID-19.

Roughly 170 medical students and 60 graduate nursing students will depart USUHS in Bethesda, Maryland, between April 1 and April 17, to support the Defense Department's coronavirus pandemic response.

The medical students, who are not yet licensed because they have not completed the required internships, will work under the supervision of licensed physicians in positions "appropriate within the limits of their duty stations," such as screening patients and taking health histories, USUHS President Dr. Richard Thomas said in an interview Thursday with

The nurses -- all of whom have experience and will graduate with advanced degrees -- will proceed directly to their assigned duty stations.

"For COVID-19, there's a lot of extra work for people and it's a lot of extra duty for the typical staff," said Thomas, a retired Army major general and board certified otolaryngologist and surgeon.

Thomas said the new graduates will be available for the Army, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Public Health Service surge to combat the coronavirus, which had sickened 82,404 people in the United States as of March 26.

The U.S. now has the most cases of any country in the world.

Related: Army Raises Health Threat to Highest Responses for Crisis Response Teams

The group of graduating physicians are slated to go into specialties such as emergency medicine (12% of the class, or 20 students), internal medicine (11%, or 19 students) and family medicine (10%, or 18 students). The remainder will specialize in a variety of fields, including psychiatry, general surgery, anaesthesia, orthopedics and other fields.

The graduate nursing students will immediately be put to work in specialties such as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists and certified registered nurse anesthetists.

Thomas said he began considering the early graduation several weeks ago, to ensure that "everyone was leaning forward" during the national crisis.

"West Point [and] Annapolis during World War II, they early-graduated several classes in a row to make sure they had more officers going into the force. That's what we are doing here," Thomas said. "They are fully trained and they are at the tail-end of their time here, so we expedited a few things at the end of the year ... so they are available to their services ... and to the nation."

Thomas said the move does not signal that the services' medical corps are short-handed, despite the fact that the Army sent a message to retired personnel in certain health specialties asking them to consider returning to military service during the pandemic.

Thomas said the current forces are ready and able to tackle the task, but "these guys will be welcome additions to the medical teams."

"The reasons people call the military to these types of things is because we have great medical capability," Thomas said. "They [also] bring logistics support, they bring security and they bring command and control. Those three big things are very important in any crisis. And if it's a medical crisis, the military can bring unique medical capability to the fight like no one else."

The House on Friday approved a $2.2 trillion disaster relief bill that includes $1.5 billion for the Defense Department to open expeditionary military hospitals and $1.4 billion to fund activation of the National Guard for up to six months in states where forces have been called up.

The bill, which passed the Senate Wednesday, now heads to the president.

Thomas expressed confidence that his new graduates will perform well regardless of the tasks handed them in their military medical commands.

"I know from my own experience with these guys coming in -- I used to be the Medical Corps chief of the Army -- I knew what I was going to get from USU is a predictably high quality product, so I can count on them to perform," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at

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