Military Capabilities

Covid-19: Pentagon ramps up response, timing questions remain

19 March 2020

The hospital ship USNS Comfort is anchored off the coast of Castries, St. Lucia, in September 2019. The Pentagon has announced plans to deploy the ship to New York to help with the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response. Source: US Navy

Despite delays, the Pentagon has finally begun holding daily press briefings to update the public on its plans to deploy medical ships, distribute medical supplies, set up field hospitals and develop a COVID-19 vaccine. However, mixed messaging over deployment timings and activities continues to persist.

President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper shared the stage during an 18 March White House press conference to announce a new defence production act and plans to deploy USNS Comfort to the New York Harbor and USNS Mercy , based in San Diego, along the nation's west coast.

Trump said that both ships were being prepared to deploy and are "in tip-top shape".

"Those two ships are being prepared to go and can be launched over the next week or so depending on need," Trump added.

However, both ships are being refurbished and just hours after Trump's comments Assistant Secretary of Defense Jonathan Hoffman told Pentagon reporters that the timing for these two deployments is "a bit more difficult" because USNS Comfort is currently undergoing maintenance work in Norfolk, Virginia.

"That's not a day's issue; that's a week's issue so it's going to be a little while," Hoffman told reporters.

While he noted that USNS Mercy was being prepared to deploy "sooner", Esper later told CNN that this this earlier deployment is still a week-and-a-half to two weeks out.

"A challenge is making sure they're properly staffed; that means each ship is over 1,000 professionals so we need to get them alerted and on the ships and then [sailing] to their respective locations," Esper said.

When it comes to staffing the ships with medical personal, Hoffman said the service is looking at its pool of active-duty military personnel first before it turns to the reserves and civilian personnel pools.

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