Six months after the coronavirus began surging across the United States, closing down cities, businesses and schools, it is still ravaging American communities. The death toll has risen past 175,000. Hospitals are increasingly overwhelmed. So far, the federal government has abdicated responsibility, so Americans should look to one organization that has shown it can have a significant impact on saving lives: the U.S. military.
One issue must be clear: No soldier, sailor, airman or Marine medic should be charged with policing public health guidelines like wearing masks or keeping social distance, even though these remain the most important tools to fight Covid-19. Their contribution must be simply saving lives through their mastery of logistics, crisis management and healing sickness.
I am an Air Force Reserve major who, for almost three months last spring, helped coordinate military assistance in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to a desperate New York City. I saw firsthand how the military can fight Covid-19: triaging hot spots, rapidly deploying units and shifting resources in unstable environments. At the time, Mayor Bill de Blasio noted that “the military is the best logistical organization in the nation,” with its ready fleet of ships, aircraft and trucks. And New York State’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, highlighted the Army Corps of Engineers’ singular efficiency in mobilizing active duty personnel to help his state.
The result? More than 4,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines came to New York’s aid — many of them Reserve doctors, nurses and medics who left their own ailing communities to help save thousands of lives in the city.
In just under two weeks, a herculean effort by the Navy moved its hospital ship Comfort from dry dock in Virginia to the city. It took only 15 days after President Trump’s national emergency declaration to open the Javits New York Medical Station — an extraordinary joint city, state and federal effort to transform a huge convention center into a hospital. Almost 800 additional Reserve service members worked alongside New York City’s medical professionals at hospitals in its hardest-hit communities, where Covid-19 has disproportionately stricken New Yorkers of color. And the rate of deaths, once among the highest in the country, shrank to one of the lowest.
The lesson is that a national catastrophe like this requires federal resources to coordinate, especially in the hardest-hit cities and states. But that has not been the pattern since New York.
The federal agencies responsible for domestic public health disasters — FEMA and the Department of Health & Human Services (H.H.S.) — are competent and well trained, but not organized or equipped to manage a crisis on the scale of Covid-19. Their resources — a combined $113 billion and 6,500 public health professionals — can’t rival the military’s $738 billion budget and 130,000 medical personnel.
Though use of the military for domestic law enforcement raises important constitutional questions, it can be a major asset in disaster response. Military medical personnel have a history of rushing to save others at great risk, and to improvise when lives are at stake. Over the years, at least 75 medics, some of them conscientious objectors, have received the country’s Medal of Honor for their actions. And as much as any other federal health agency, the military has had “combat” experience against pandemics; in 2014 and 2015 it played an important role in holding back the Ebola virus in West Africa.
The military is already playing a part among the patchwork of states cringing under the force of Covid-19. The Pentagon has deployed medical forces to Texas and California. The Defense Logistics Agency is coordinating the procurement and distribution of ventilators and personal protective equipment to medical professionals around the country. The Air Force has developed and fielded aeromedical evacuation systems to ease the transfer of Covid-19 patients. In May, after early missteps slowed the progress of the Trump administration’s effort to accelerate vaccine development, it brought in a four-star Army general, Gustave F. Perna, to help lead the effort. And the military’s cybernetwork defenders are helping protect American pharmaceutical companies from theft of Covid-19 vaccine research.
But the military can do much more, starting with what its organizations and training are designed for: crisis management.
The Pentagon and U.S. Northern Command, working in tandem with FEMA and H.H.S., can meet the nationwide need for flowing resources from hot spot to hot spot, augmenting exhausted civilian doctors and nurses, and orchestrating the procuring and delivery of supplies to far-flung corners of the United States and its territories. Although it must keep medical units and personnel ready to respond to any unexpected war abroad, that capability is reinforced by airlift and ground resources in the Reserve and National Guard, which can move more equipment, supplies and people on short notice.
As the resumption of infection and deaths proceeds, inexplicable White House decisions to shift the main virus-fighting effort to state governments, which lack the necessary resources, have made the job extremely and unnecessarily difficult. Too many hospitals remain in danger of being overwhelmed, with hot spots in Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and almost 30 other states.
At a time when many Americans have lost faith in their government, the military is among the country’s most trusted institutions.
It is armed with the best of America’s medical personnel and resources, and it can do more to help.
Philip Caruso, a major in the United States Air Force Reserve, previously served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force.
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