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Military Medicine on Front Lines of COVID-19 Response

April 10, 2020 | BY Terri Moon Cronk , DOD News

Military medicine is at the front lines of the national COVID-19 response, bringing unique and agile expertise and rapidly deployable resources to the fight, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs said.

Thomas McCaffery told Pentagon reporters today that the Defense Department and its Military Health System have mobilized active and reserve components of doctors, nurses and medical technicians to two ships and numerous expeditionary field hospitals around the country to support local health care systems.

McCaffery and other leaders of the Military Health System took reporters' questions about the military medical sector being in the middle of the COVID-19 battle.

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For example, some 30,000 National Guard service members are offering frontline care to community-based testing, distributing personal protective equipment, medical supplies, food and water, all part of the concerted national response to serve and support hard-hit communities, McCaffery said. 

For the first time in its more than 40-year history, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences – the military's own medical school — has graduated nurses and doctors early so they are on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, he noted. 

The Military Health System also is heavily involved in better understanding the virus, how to treat it, and how to prevent it. 

"We are putting all the best brains in our military medical research facilities, working in partnership with other federal agencies on future treatments and vaccines," McCaffery said. "Our research experts are focusing in on diagnostic testing, … [using] robust laboratory networks to perform testing, and pursuing additional types of diagnostic capabilities to include serologic testing to assess the patients' blood for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies."

A captain is ready to deploy.
Check In
Army personnel assigned to the Joint Readiness Center on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., check in an Air Force captain before heading to New York City in response to COVID-19, April 6, 2020. This deployment is part of a larger mobilization package of more than 120 doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists from the Air Force Reserve mobilized in support of COVID-19 response.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jake Carter
VIRIN: 200406-F-UN699-1003

DOD also has invested $75 million to research three vaccine candidates, McCaffery said, adding that the department is collaborating closely with other federal research efforts.

"These medical research teams continue to be at the forefront in support of the whole-of-government response to this pandemic," he added. 

DOD is working hard to ensure its beneficiaries have continued access to the care they need by ramping up virtual health capabilities, establishing drive-up testing sites and putting the right protection measures in place to minimize exposure risk to patients and health care workers, McCaffery emphasized. 

The department has expanded its nurse advice telephone line to include over-the-phone screening tools to meet the surge witnessed just weeks ago, he said, noting that it now handles up to 9,000 calls a day from people who need medical consultation. 

To reach the advice line, visit the MHS Nurse Advice Line website for web chat and video chat or dial 1-800-TRICARE (874-2273) and choose option 1.

Doctors and nurses board plane.
Ohio Departure
A doctor and several nurses from the 445th Airlift Wing’s aerospace medicine and aeromedical staging squadrons board a C-17 Globemaster III at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, heading to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., April 5, 2020 The airmen were notified the previous day that they would be mobilized to New York City to help with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. Patrick O'Reilly
VIRIN: 200405-F-BT522-0149C

DOD's medical treatment facilities are putting in place pharmacy drive-throughs and curbside delivery, in some cases up to 1,200 vehicles and patients a day, McCaffery said, "demonstrating our ability to protect our people while also staying mission-ready." 

"At the same time," he continued, "we haven't let up supporting combat readiness for service members, even while we've surged laboratory and research facilities to support national and international events."

As it contends with a historic challenge for the nation, McCaffery said, the Military Health System is bringing all it has to bear in the fight from highly trained medical providers and a world-class health care system to cutting-edge research and development expertise in a wide-ranging arsenal. 

Medical personnel on a bus.
Support Deployment
Army personnel depart from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and head to New York City, April 8, 2020. The deployment is part of a larger mobilization package of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists from Air Force Reserve units across the nation in support of the COVID-19 response. U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, is providing military support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help communities in need.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jake Carter
VIRIN: 200408-F-UN699-1003C

On military combat capabilities, the system is trained to be agile and adaptable, he said. "That's why we're here," he added. "And that's what we do across the Military Health System. That's what you see in action today."

The men and women serving in the military medical field are delivering today on the front lines of hospitals and clinics, in the labs and behind scenes, advancing the priorities of the department to protect the American people, maintain national readiness and support the nation's needs, he said.