Pentagon to give 5M respirator masks, 2,000 ventilators to HHS in response to coronavirus outbreak

(THE HILL) March 19, 2020

The Pentagon will give 5 million respirator masks and up to 2,000 deployable ventilators to Health and Human Services (HHS) in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday.

The caveat, Esper said, is that the ventilators are designed for use by deployed troops, require training to operate and may have single-use limitations.

But the Defense Department is “committed to supporting HHS’s requirements in any way we can,” he added.

State officials facing a shortage of masks and ventilators have increasingly asked Washington for help getting supplies to protect health care workers and treat patients with COVID-19.

Hospitals are quickly using up their stockpiles of masks for health workers, called N95 respirators, and are also worried they won’t have enough ventilators for the expected surge of patients in the coming weeks and months as the coronavirus outbreak worsens.

State and federal officials are also increasingly calling on the Pentagon to make resources available, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Sunday writing an op-ed in The New York Times asking for the military to have the Army Corps of Engineers build hospitals to relieve overburdened civilian hospitals.

And four Democratic House lawmakers from New York on Tuesday called for President Trump to deploy a Naval hospital ship to New York City to treat non-coronavirus patients.

Esper said he’s asked the Navy to “lean forward” and prepare to deploy the hospital ships but stressed that the ships are equipped for trauma, not infectious diseases. He said that they could be helpful to take non-coronavirus cases from civilian hospitals.

The Pentagon chief — who on Monday held two meetings with Department of Defense (DOD) senior civilian and military officials and briefed Vice President Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar on the support efforts — said DOD is also opening its 14 certified coronavirus testing labs to test nonmilitary personnel, with two additional labs soon available.