Pentagon Takes Cautious Stance on Active Role in Virus Treatment

Glen Carey and Roxana Tiron

(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon expressed caution about its ability to provide swift medical assistance in the U.S. effort to treat the coronavirus outbreak after former Vice President Joe Biden called for a mobilization using military hospitals and tents.

The Defense Department’s 36 hospitals in the U.S. are better-suited to treating battlefield traumas than contagious diseases and are designed to meet the “immediate” needs of service members and their families, Air Force Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs, the surgeon who advises the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. He said the same is true for “deployable” hospitals.

“We do not have any 500-bed hospitals designed for infectious disease outbreaks,” Friedrichs said. “That does not exist in the inventory. What we’re trying to be very careful of is not over-promising.”

The remarks came after Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, said in his debate with Bernie Sanders on Sunday night that the U.S. military should be called upon to do more to help respond to the spread of the virus.

“The answer is I would call out the military,” Biden said. “They have the capacity to provide this surge, help that hospitals’ need -- and that is needed across the nation. They have the capacity to build 500-bed hospitals” and “tents that are completely safe and secure, and provide the help to get it done to anybody.”

Even if the military sets up medical tents, “the limiting factor” would be personnel, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

“We have not seen huge demand signals,” coming to the Defense Department, Friedrichs said.

While the Defense Department often underscores that it must focus its resources on its core military mission, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has fully endorsed President Donald Trump’s actions to divert military personnel to the U.S. southern border and military funds to help build his border wall.

Separating Leaders

Hoffman also disclosed that Esper and his deputy, David Norquist, are working separately as the Pentagon tries to minimize the risk of contagion among its senior leaders.

At the latest count, the U.S. military has 37 reported coronavirus cases, including 18 military personnel, 13 dependents, three contractors and three civilians, Hoffman said. The Defense Department has tested 495 personnel worldwide and has no reported cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Friedrichs.

A sailor assigned to the USS Boxer tested positive for the new coronavirus, the Navy said on Sunday in an emailed statement. It’s the first case for a sailor on board a Navy ship and sailor is currently quarantined at home and personnel that the individual had close contact with are in self-isolation at their residences, the Navy said.

--With assistance from Tony Capaccio.

To contact the reporters on this story: Glen Carey in Washington at gcarey8@bloomberg.net;Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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