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Defense Sec. Mark Esper on mobilizing the U.S. military to fight COVID-19

The U.S. military is gearing up to fight the novel coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly across the U.S. Plans include deployment of hospital ships as overflow for hospitals, allocation of critical medical supplies and research in military labs on development of treatment and a vaccine. Judy Woodruff speaks with Defense Secretary Mark Esper about these efforts and keeping service members safe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we turn to the U.S. military and defense community's role in the fight against COVID-19.

    Late this afternoon, I spoke with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who was at the Pentagon.

    Secretary Mark Esper, thank you very much for joining us.

    Let's start with COVID-19. We are told the military gearing up in a big way, sending a hospital ship, one to each coast, providing hospital beds on land, providing masks and other material.

    It's a lot. Is it going to be enough?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    I think so, Judy. We're putting all of our efforts into this.

    As you noted, we're providing to the states manpower, we're providing medical equipment and supplies. We are going to dispatch our hospital ships, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast. We are contributing to the effort through our military research labs, where we are working mightily on both a vaccine and therapeutics.

    So we're doing everything we can to help with this effort and to help protect the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Secretary, on the military ships, our understanding is they would be used to handle the overflow of seriously ill patients from hospitals, so that on-land hospitals would work with the COVID-19 patients. Is that right?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Slightly right.

    So, the purpose of these ships, of course, are for wartime use. So they are geared to handle trauma patients. So think of people with head injuries, lacerations, broken bones, those types of things.

    Based on how the ships are configured, they're not built to handle patients with infectious disease. So what we can do is, we can pull a ship into a harbor, we can dock, and we can help either pick up trauma patients from a local hospital, thus freeing up bed space for patients with COVID-1, or we could help with the overflow of trauma patients in recovery, who would come out of the hospital, again, once again, freeing up bed space for localities to put infectious, infected patients into those rooms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Reserve forces, Mr. Secretary, you said you have tried to avoid calling them up to the extent it would hurt any vital role they're playing in their community.

    So, how you thinking about that in terms of using active-duty forces vs. the Reserves and making the tough decision whether to pull them out?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Well, it's first important to note that 29 of the states now have activated the National Guard.

    The National Guard is a very capable force. I served in the National Guard for many years, so I know what they can do. And what I have said with regard to the Reservists is this. As we look at activating, whether it's the hospital ships or our field-deployable hospitals, one of the challenges we face is that many of the medical professionals that would staff those hospitals would — could come from the Reserves.

    So we have to be very conscious as we do this to make sure we're not pulling required medical personal, professionals out of a civilian role that is needed and putting them into a military role and deploying them somewhere else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you think of the National Guard, we are told that the head of the Guard is saying they shouldn't be nationalized quickly.

    But could the situation become so serious that that has to happen?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Well, they're — we don't see a need to federalize the National Guard either.

    What that means is, we'd end up pulling them into a national basis. I think the best use of the Guard right now is doing what they are doing. And that is working in what we call a Title 32 status for the governors of their states and then dealing with the challenges that the governor needs them to deal with at the state and local level.

    As need be, we can always supplement them with Federal Reserve troops or active-component troops. But, again, that's not on the drawing board at this point in time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is the main role right now for active-duty troops in the U.S.?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Well, I like to say and I like to remind the American people, if not reassure them, that the United States military remains ready and capable to protect the country and defend our interests abroad.

    And right now, that is our primary mission. We also have all these other capabilities that I mentioned up front that we're providing to the COVID-19 effort. That includes, again, everything from military research on vaccines, on therapeutics, to providing military, medical equipment out of our strategic stockpiles, to making available medical professionals, and to helping out any way a state needs help.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a conflict, Mr. Secretary, between having these service members do their jobs, protecting the country, and keeping them safe from COVID-19?

    How are you doing that, number one? And we know that, what, 81 Defense Department employees are now infected, several dozen service members. How do you look upon keeping them safe, at the same time they're doing their job?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    It's a very good question.

    We took very aggressive measures several weeks ago to get ahead of this and stay ahead of it. So, for example, we stopped what we call permanent change of station moves in between overseas and the United States.

    We ultimately moved that to moves within the United States. We have also put quarantines on people traveling between bases, certainly those traveling home. We have asked people to self-isolate as need be.

    We have instituted a wide range of procedures across the force, to include here at the Pentagon, where we're exercising a great deal of social distancing. We're wiping down tables and doorknobs.

    In fact, I do video teleconferences with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and my deputy. So we're talking all kinds of measures across the force to ensure the protection of our troops and, by the way, our family members and our beneficiaries.

    And, as you noted, we have a few dozen right now who have the virus. Actually, it's 51 uniformed military. I had a chance to talk with a few of them already in the past few days. They're doing well.

    But we're taking great care to make sure the force is well-protected. We're blessed with a young, robust, healthy, fit force that has great medical care. So I'm confident that they will fare well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You talked about preparation.

    I want to ask you about a New York Times story that has come out just today that reports on exercises that were conducted inside the Trump administration, anticipating a global pandemic, laying out clearly what the risks would be, but that it all happened many layers down in the bureaucracy, that people at the highest levels of the government, it never demonstrated the sense of urgency that would normally have been expected.

    So, when President Trump said the other day nobody ever thought of numbers like this, this report says that, in fact, people in the federal government did know that this was possible.

    Were you aware of these exercises, Secretary?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Well, I'm not familiar with — I'm not familiar with that report. I haven't seen it.

    But I will tell you that DOD has a number of plans out there to deal with pandemics. We have exercised them in the past. We exercised them early on when this first hit. I think it was late January, early February. It's what we do. We're familiar with it, and I think that's kept us in good stead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did the U.S. military medical service, which, of course, keeps an eye on outbreaks around the world, did they notify you and others in the Pentagon when this first broke in Wuhan, China?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Well, I'm not — I couldn't go back and tell you the timing off the top of my head.

    But, of course, we have a great epidemiological surveillance system out there. Our doctors are the best in the world. I was at Fort Detrick, Maryland, just a couple of days ago, where the military's premier infectious disease researchers are located.

    You may recall these are the doctors and other professionals who helped resolve Ebola and Zika and other diseases. So, we stay on top of these things. It's a part and parcel of what we do in order to protect our force to ensure we're mission-capable.

    And they, to this day, to this moment, are still on top of this, making sure that we're taking every action we can to both work on and develop therapeutics and a vaccine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In retrospect, just quickly, though, do you think you were made aware of the serious threat this poses soon enough, that you had enough warning, because, as you know, people are asking now whether the administration could have moved more quickly and earlier?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    I think the administration has moved very quickly.

    I think we all could have benefited by having earlier notice from China that this was developing. They had known for some period of time, weeks, if not months, that this was brewing in Wuhan, and we didn't have that type of notice, at least not that I'm aware of.

    That would have helped a great deal in terms of containing that spread within China and then preventing, of course, the spread globally. But, again, as soon as we heard about it, we began taking actions. I'm confident the administration acted quickly. We have a great team that's advising the president.

    The president has made some really bold decisions, and acted in — with great alacrity to make sure that we stayed on top of this and are doing everything we can to protect the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there certainly has been criticism of China for covering this up in the early days, no question about it.

    But now that it's a global pandemic — and we know the president has called it the Chinese virus — but now that it is a pandemic, how do you see the need to continue to work with Chinese military leaders, for example? Are you still in touch with them on any sort of regular basis?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Well, it is a global pandemic, and so we need to work together globally to deal with it, both certainly at this point on the mitigation, and I'm sure we're working together with many of our allies and partners on therapeutics and vaccines.

    With regard to your — the second part of your question, we do. We talk often with our counterparts in China. I think I spoke to my counterpart several weeks ago. At the time, I offered our assistance to China with regard to providing doctors and others to come help them to study the disease and whatnot.

    But it's important that we maintain those open communications, not just for COVID-19, but, of course, for anywhere we are in the world where our militaries are interacting with one another.

    So, it's one of the priorities I have placed, is establishing those lines of communication. I do it at my level. The chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff does it at his level. Throughout the organization, we try and keep close ties or open ties with China and other countries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, just quickly, Mr. Secretary, has this outbreak, this crisis given you a new understanding of the role of the Pentagon, the role of the Defense Department in keeping America safe?

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    You know, it's another aspect of what we do, in terms of providing support to the civilian authorities and support to the American people to help protect them.

    As I said, I served 10 years on active duty, 11 years in the Guard Reserve. And during my time at least in the Virginia Guard, I got called out once or twice to help with a flood or hurricane. So this is another mission we do, whether it's floods and hurricanes, wildfires, you name it.

    Clearly, this is unprecedented in many ways, at least in my lifetime, with the scale, scope, speed at which this virus has spread around the country.

    But, look, DOD is fully committed to doing everything we can to help the American people to mitigate this virus, contain it as best we can, and, at the same time, ensuring we provide for the nation's security.

    And so I'm very proud of the men and women in uniform, of our families and our DOD civilians for everything they're doing to help out in this one-team effort.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, we thank you very much.

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    Thank you, Judy.

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