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Coronavirus in the US: Military ‘driven by science’ on return to normal operations, Defense Secretary Mark Esper says

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley speak to reporters at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., March 2, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

With more than 50,000 armed services members helping to combat COVID-19 across the country and about 2 million military personnel grappling with social distancing and travel restrictions, Pentagon officials say it will take several weeks before operations return to normal.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters on Tuesday that military leaders would review a range of restrictions every two weeks or so. He said the decision to shift into normal operations would be “driven by science” and an understanding of how the virus spreads, while efforts to ramp up testing continue.

Esper noted that many in the military, including married members and families, “have suspended their lives” at a time when they would otherwise be moving to other parts of the country and “getting settled into new communities, new schools.”

“We don’t know how long this will play out,” he said. But he noted that the crisis in the nation’s biggest hotspot, New York — where the military has deployed medical personnel, a Navy ship and equipment — was “plateauing,” according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“I want to make sure I can do my top two missions: protect my people and ensure the readiness of my force,” Esper said. “Before I start moving people around, I want to do that with a high degree of confidence that I won’t spread the virus.”

Meanwhile, Esper said the military would keep supporting Americans by having an active presence in multiple areas during the pandemic. He noted that Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces would deploy to a number of cities, including Boston, Columbus, New York and Tacoma.

He said the U.S. military has already sent more than 4,000 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to support facilities in “the most impacted areas,” including more than 2,000 personnel to New York alone.

More than 15,000 from the Army Corps of Engineers have helped ramp up bed capacity in cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago. And more than 30,000 National Guardsmen have helped deliver food and supplies in all 50 states and constructed 150 alternate care facilities with 83,000 beds for COVID-19 patients.

While officials are reviewing whether to modify an order restricting personnel movement, Esper said the order was a “necessary measure” to keep people safe.

“It will take time, but we will get through this together and stronger as a result,” he said.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military leaders would take a leading role in an “interagency after-action review,” because “there’s going to be lots and lots of lessons learned” from the outbreak, including logistics, public affairs, and managing social distancing and safety on ships, submarines and planes.

“We intend to do that rigorously,” Milley said, adding that the military would not simply return to “business as usual.”

The impact the virus had on the economy, on fragile states overseas, on resources and on daily interaction and safety warrants “a hard look at how we as a military and Department of Defense conduct operations in the future and how we learn those lessons and continue to be effective in a post-COVID-19 world,” Milley said.

Milley added that the government would also review preparation efforts in terms of logistics, equipment and manufacturing, noting many masks and other protective gear are currently made overseas.


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