Analysis / Forces

Covid-19 Response Update: March 16-27

Combating Covid-19 Series

With identified cases of Covid-19 continuing to skyrocket in the United States, the military has undertaken a number of actions to supplement the U.S. domestic medical system. However, the military is also susceptible to the virus, which has increasingly affected the Pentagon and military operations around the world as more cases of Covid-19 are identified.

With so much happening so quickly, it has been difficult to track everything that has taken place. This update provides a roundup of the major ways the military has stepped up to combat the novel coronavirus over the past two weeks and how the military in turn has been affected by the virus. 

Context: The World and Nation

Coronavirus Covid-19 continues to race around the country with the United States now labeled the new epicenter with 86,012 confirmed cases as of Friday morning according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. World-wide confirmed cases have reached 551,337. While in the United States New York City is home to nearly half of the cases, other cities are also seeing rapidly rising rates.

President Trump begins what will likely be a long debate about the value of social distancing and quarantine versus the economic cost and possibility of recession or even depression. False rumors have been popping up about imminent imposition of martial law, indicating popular anxiety about quarantine and the future.

Military Cases of Covid-19

Impact of Covid-19 on Ongoing Military Operations

Active Duty Covid-19 Operations

  • The USNS Comfort hospital ship has been ordered to head to New York to assist with non-coronavirus patients, taking the load off of New York’s medical system. However, the ship is currently undergoing expedited maintenance in Norfolk and will not arrive in New York until mid-April.
  • March 23: The USNS Mercy hospital ship (sister ship to USNS Comfort) deployed from its homeport at Naval Base San Diego to Los Angeles, scheduled to arrive Friday morning, to help clear space for an increasing number of Covid-19 cases. The hospital ships have around 1,000 beds, 12 operating rooms, and upwards of 1,200 medical personnel but, because of their open configuration, may be used for non-Covid-19 patients.
  • March 23: DOD issued “prepare to deploy” orders to three expeditionary medical units and military field hospitals. One will go to New York, another to Seattle, with other locations determined by discussions with FEMA. Each hospital center has up to 250 beds. Since many of the medical staff are drawn from reserve units and pulled from their civilian jobs, Secretary Esper said that extra precautions are being taken on where personnel are activated from. Esper also announced the Army Corps of Engineers is using contracting capability to convert nonmedical facilities (hotels, dormitories, etc) into temporary medical facilities.
  • March 26: The U.S. Coast Guard continues to perform front-line operations to ensure public safety and the efficient flow of commerce in the Maritime Transportation System. The Coast Guard is facilitating medical evacuations of 13 sick crew members from two cruise ships off the port of Miami, FL.

National Guard and Reserve Covid-19 Operations

National Guard units are being activated in a state role (Article 32) to combat the coronavirus and enforce order. Nationalization (Title 10) ruled out for now.

  • March 19: Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, stated that 2,050 National Guard troops in 27 states were activated as part of Covid-19 response efforts and that number was expected to double in the next several days. He gave several examples of how National Guard units from New York, Tennessee, Florida, Maryland, Wisconsin, Louisiana among others provided logistical and other capabilities that included “airlift, ground transportation, command and control, engineering, kitchens, tents and medical personnel.”
  • March 20: Lengyel denies any discussions about using Guard to enforce nationwide quarantine. However, governors retain that authority.
  • March 22: President Trump announced that the federal government would fund National Guard units in New York, California, and Washington state in their efforts to combat the coronavirus.
  • March 25: More than 9,000 National Guard troops are now activated for Covid-19 ops and will grow by 1,000 daily, says Lengyel.  He further stated they were “sticking to mobile testing, logistics, transportation and other non-law enforcement support to civilian authorities.”
  • A broader list of state National Guard efforts can be found here.

Readiness

Bases and Infrastructure

  • March 20: The Army announced that it will move to online recruiting while shutting down all recruiting stations. A large drop in recruits may be likely.
  • 21st TSC (Theater Sustainment Command) in Kaiserslautern, Germany, now on a 10am to 5pm curfew. Ft. Carson declared a public health emergency on Tuesday the 24th, after Schreiver and Peterson AFBs already did so; Ft. Hood directed units on Tuesday to downgrade to ‘mission essential’ personnel only. 

Supplies and Logistics

  • March 17: DOD makes available 5 million respirator masks to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with 1 million available immediately. In addition, 2,000 deployable ventilators were made available to HHS, which are slightly different from civilian models and require special training. 14 testing labs would be available to test non-DOD personnel.
  • Secretary Esper noted that Fort Detrick, MD, which houses the Army Medical Research and Development Command, can contribute to the development of vaccine and can conduct testing with the purchase of new equipment.

Defense Industry

  • March 18: President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA), a 1950s law dating to the Korean War and reauthorized many times since then, and delegated these authorities to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. DPA enables wartime powers to compel private industry to rapidly develop and supply medical equipment. However, while the White House has invoked the law in letter, it has not yet used the act to direct industry allocation of medical supplies. DOD continues to be delegated authority to use DPA for defense needs.
  • March 20: DOD contractors asked to stay on the job, after the Department of Homeland Security designated defense industry as critical infrastructure though this federal designation is not legally binding on state and local officials.
  • Covid-19 cases appearing in contractor workforces.
    • March 23: Boeing suspended production in Puget Sound area, affecting production of Air Force KC-46 refuelers and Navy P-8 patrol aircraft.
    • March 25: Bath Iron Works continues production after a worker tests positive for Covid-19 in light of Navy needs.
  • March 20: DOD increases progress payments to large and small businesses in the industrial base. This accelerates several billion in payments to industry in the near term for completed work.

Funding

  • March 17: OMB sends proposal for $48.3 billion in government wide supplemental funding. DOD’s share is $8.3 billion, in a transfer account.
  • March 22: Supplemental expanded and rolled into broader economic stimulus package. DOD share reportedly increased to $10 billion, with allocation to specific appropriations, not a transfer account.
  • March 25: Congressional negotiators agree to stimulus package.
  • March 26: Senate passes stimulus bill, including $10.5 billion for defense. Bill includes funds for DOD health programs, National Guard activation and operations, active-duty operations, and procurement of medical supplies. Bill also provides authority to move money around (except to border wall), flexibility on contracting processes, and authority to extend certain senior military officials for up to 270 days in their current positions. The additional money means that DOD’s coronavirus response will not come at the expense of other activities.

What to Look for Next Week

Expect more National Guard activations, more medical units deployed, more training and travel restrictions.

What to watch for:

  • Any early returns of Navy ships from deployment because of sickness aboard.
  • Reduction or curtailment of overseas combat operations in the Middle East.
  • Cessation of basic military training in the United States.

These actions would constitute a step change in the Covid–19 effects on the military.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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Mark Cancian and Adam Saxton, "Covid-19 Response Update: March 16-27," Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 27, 2020, last modified March 27, 2020, https://defense360.csis.org/covid-19-response-update-march-16-27/.