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U.S. Must Prepare for Current, Future Pandemics

April 30, 2020 | BY C. Todd Lopez , DOD News

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the United States must bolster its medical-industrial base to deal with both the current pandemic, a potential resurgence in the fall and any pandemics that may come in the future, the Defense Department's undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment said.

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"How much longer are we going to be cranking out the masks? For a very long time," Ellen M. Lord said during a news conference today at the Pentagon.

Lord told reporters she expects the department and the nation will be battling COVID-19 for six months to a year or more, and she has several materiel-related objectives being prepared for that continued fight.

"We need to take care of the demand we have right now that started with medical personnel," she said. "But we need the country to get back to work, and that is going to require some personal protective equipment that includes masks. So, No. 1, we have to bridge beyond nonmedical personnel PPE, and masks are very significant."

A service member wears a face mask as he holds a device that generates smoke.
Smoke Test
An airman receives a cloud of smoke to test the ventilation of his N95 mask in Southwest Asia, March 13, 2020.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Alexandre Montes
VIRIN: 200313-F-BN304-084C

As part of an ongoing effort to equip service members with PPE, she said, the Defense Logistics Agency continues to work with the military services to get them what ithey need. She said the agency has procured more than 5.9 million N95 respirator masks, 14.2 million nonmedical and surgical masks, 92.2 million exam gloves, 2.4 million isolation and surgical gowns and 8,000 ventilators.

"Delivery of over 5 million nonmedical cloth face coverings to our military services, combatant commands, U.S. Coast Guard and several federal agencies has begun," she said.

For the nation as a whole, she said, it'll also be necessary to refill the national U.S. stockpile of personal protective equipment.

"Then we need to look forward to what the data is telling us — that there may well be another significant outbreak this fall. We want to be prepared for that," Lord said.

Two women put masks into plastic bags. In the foreground are cardboard boxes filled with individually wrapped masks.
PPE Kits
Base support employees at Sierra Army Depot, Calif., assemble kits containing personal protective equipment, April 7, 2020.
Photo By: Lynn Goddard, Army
VIRIN: 200407-A-PC730-995C

Also important, she said, is being prepared for the next pandemic that might come in the future.

"We see this as an ongoing issue, both within the Defense Department — because we need to not only support the nation with everything we're doing with Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency — but we have our primary mission here of national security, and we have to be ready to go ahead and do that."

While HHS and FEMA have the infrastructure and the overall mission of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, DOD, with its sizable acquisition workforce, has the ability to surge the medical-industrial base. She said the industrial base, however, may need some changes if it's going to be ready to address future pandemics.

A woman in hospital scrubs holds a basket full of paper masks that she is placing in a large metal cabinet.
Mask Storage
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Sudan Roache stores N95 masks aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy, April 20, 2020.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Class Ryan M. Breeden
VIRIN: 200420-N-PH222-1047C

"We've learned that we've had fragility in it on a number of fronts," she said. "We were overly dependent on foreign sources; we still have the air bridge working to bring all kinds of medical resources back to the United States. So, we need to make sure that we have security and resiliency in our medical-industrial base."

Lord said the DOD acquisition apparatus can help ensure the medical-industrial base has both the capacity and capability to provide for both the current medical crisis and future crises.

"What I would like to see is the U.S. have the capacity and throughput to take care of ourselves in times of need," she said.