U.S. military begins mobilizing medical assistance for civilians, including 5 million respirators

The Navy also will prepare floating hospital ships for potential deployment.

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USNS Mercy ship in May 2018
USNS Mercy ship in May 2018
(LINH PHAM/AFP via Getty Images)
Last Updated:
March 17, 2020 - 7:32pm

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The U.S. military on Tuesday rushed into action to fight the coronavirus, preparing its floating ship hospitals for possible civilian use, offering up its labs for testing and unleashing as many as 5 million badly needed respirator masks from its stockpiles.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the Pentagon's plan as the number of cases and deaths across America crept higher and the government put its full resources toward slowing the spread of the virus.

"First, the Department of Defense will make available up to 5 million N95 respirator masks and other personal protective equipment from our own strategic reserves to the Department of Health and Human Services for distribution," Esper explained in his announcement.

"Next, we are prepared to distribute to HHS up to 2,000 deployable ventilators for use as needed," he said. "These machines are different from their civilian equivalents and require special training to operate, but we are committed to supporting HHS's requirements in any way we can."

"Third, the Department has made our 14 certified coronavirus testing labs available to test non-DOD personnel as well, and we will soon offer two additional labs for that purpose."

"Finally, we are considering activating National Guard and Reserve units to assist states with planning, logistics and medical support as needed."

The USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort hospital ships could be deployed to provide medical care to help relieve hospitals. Esper said the ships could service trauma cases in order to free up space at hospitals for people with infectious diseases.