US military prepares hospital ships for deployment, to open Its labs

The U.S. military said Tuesday it would open its labs, distribute key medical equipment and ready its hospital ships in response to the growing crisis surrounding coronavirus.

The U.S. military said Tuesday it would open its labs, distribute key medical equipment and ready its hospital ships in response to the growing crisis surrounding coronavirus.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. military would provide up to 5 million respirator masks and other items of personal protective equipment to safeguard front-line responders and up to 2,000 specialized ventilators.

He also said the Pentagon would open up as many as 16 labs to test civilians for the virus and potentially call up more members of the National Guard and Reserve.

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"When you look at the numbers of people that are projected that may need ventilators, 2,000 doesn't put much of a dent in it but we can offer what we have," Mr. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday,

The U.S.Naval Ship Comfort and its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, are being prepared to be sent to potential hot spots in the U.S. if the number of coronavirus cases begins to overwhelm local hospitals, officials said. There hasn't yet been a formal request for use of the ships, Mr. Esper said.

The Pentagon is offering up the capabilities and equipment as federal, state and local officials have grown increasingly anxious about the nation's capacity to deal with the growing number of coronavirus cases across the nation, particularly in New York and Washington state, both of which have high numbers of infections. The Health and Human Services department made the requests in recent days, Mr. Esper said.

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New York and Washington state also could be two locations in need of services afforded by the medical ships, based on the number of cases in those areas, where there has been a total of more than 2,800 cases and about 50 deaths, officials said.

Each ship has a 1,000-patient capacity and is designed primarily to provide short-term care. The ships could be used to support noncoronavirus patients to relieve pressure on civilian hospitals, Mr. Esper said. While the Navy provides sailors to guide the ships, the medical personnel are from the private sector, and Mr. Esper warned about of possible costs of using military hospitals

"What I don't want to do is take reservists from a hospital where they are needed just to put them on a ship somewhere else where they are needed. So we have got to be very conscious of that," Mr. Esper said.

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The Comfort currently is at port in Norfolk, Va., and the Mercy is in San Diego, officials said. It likely would take one to three days to get either or both ships to their intended location, they said.

Officials said medical personnel, who typically aren't assigned to the ships unless they are being deployed, are being identified within the military.