Transcript

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Press Briefing

March 17, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:   OK, well, good afternoon, everyone.  I'd like to provide an update on DOD's coronavirus efforts as we continue to focus on our three priorities: protecting our troops, their families and our personnel; second, safeguarding our national security missions; and third, supporting the administration's whole-of-government approach to addressing this national health emergency.  At the same time, I want to assure the American people that the United States military remains ready and capable of meeting all of our national security requirements.

I just returned from a visit to Fort Detrick to see firsthand how DOD doctors and scientists are advancing vaccine and treatment efforts to combat the coronavirus.  I was briefed on the Army Medical Research and Development Command's cutting-edge COVID-19 response, and then I visited the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to learn about its ongoing experimentation and testing.

The Army's work on a vaccine is one of the many ways the Department of Defense is supporting President Trump's whole-of-government approach to fight the virus and substantially slow its spread.  Many the policies and guidelines we've released go hand-in-hand with the president's 15-day plan.  We have issued international and domestic travel restrictions to all DOD personnel and families that should dramatically reduce potential exposure to the virus.

Inside the Pentagon, we are practicing social distancing, minimizing person-to-person interaction and, wherever possible, conducting virtual meetings.  Employees who exhibit any symptoms of the virus are instructed to seek appropriate medical treatment, stay home and telework as needed.

Yesterday, I held two sessions with the department's senior civilian and military leaders and briefed Vice President Pence, Secretary Azar and other task force leaders on recommendations for how DOD can provide additional medical and logistical support during this national health emergency.  I'd like to highlight several of those today.

First, the Department of Defense will make available up to five million N-95 respirator masks and other personal protective equipment from our own strategic reserves to the Department of Health and Human Services for distribution.  The first one million masks will be made available immediately.

Next, we are prepared to distribute to HHS up to 2,000 deployable ventilators for use as needed.  These machines are different from their civilian equivalents and require special training to operate, but we are committed to supporting HHS's requirements in any way we can.

Third, the department has made our 14 certified coronavirus testing labs available to test non-DOD personnel as well, and we will soon offer two additional labs for that purpose.  We hope this will provide excess capacity to the civilian population.

Finally, we are considering activating National Guard and Reserve units to assist states with planning, logistics and medical support as needed.  In my conversations with governors and members of Congress about DOD's resources, I've made it clear that we will continue to support the administration's comprehensive efforts and the country every step of the way, while ensuring our nation's security remains the top priority of the Department of Defense.

I recognize our decisions impact service members and their families, and I want them to know that we're all in this together.  If we can dramatically reduce the spread of the virus over the next 15 days, together, we can help restore public health and the economy and hasten a return to our normal way of life.

As circumstances evolve over the coming days and weeks, we will continue to take every necessary precaution to protect our forces, to safeguard our national security capabilities and to support the president's whole-of-government fight against this virus.  These are DOD's priorities, and we remain focused on them.

Thank you, and I will open it up this time for questions.

STAFF: Bob.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you mentioned you're considering, I believe you said, activating the National Guard.  Are you talking about federalizing the National Guard?  And also, could you explain a little bit in a little more detail what was said this morning in the White House about using -- or calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to help with either construction or renovation of facilities?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, first, on the -- with regard to the Guard and Reserves, we're -- we're looking at all the requirements as they come in.  We're -- we're funneling those into a central point.  As you know, right now, we have, I think, 18 states and over 1,500 Guardsmen activated are -- at different parts around the country, and so as we get requests in we will look at activating if we need -- if we need to at the federal level, or using the Reserves, whatever the case may be.  But we want to be very supportive with regard to our prioritization in terms of supporting the -- the American people and the governors.

With regard to your second question, I did not have a chance to observe the news conference, but my view is I'm more than willing to send the Army Corps of Engineers out to work with states and to see what we can provide, what we can offer.  As -- as you know, the Corps of Engineers is a contracting body that does program oversight and work, and if we can be useful, if we can help, certainly willing to provide that -- that service.

STAFF:  Idrees?

Q:  If I could just follow up, what are we talking about in terms of magnitude of active duty troops that could be used?  Are we talking 10,000, 20,000, 30,000?  And are you -- or are the -- the hospital Navy ships preparing to sort of deploy to assist with non-coronavirus cases?

SEC. ESPER:  So right now, we're really focused on Guard and Reserve, in that order.  We haven't looked, because there hasn't been a need yet, a request for active duty.  So we'll take all these requests in due time.

With regard to the hospital ships, there are two, as you know.  The -- the Comfort is on the East Coast; the Mercy, on West Coast in Norfork and -- and San Diego, respectively.  The Comfort is undergoing maintenance and the Mercy is -- is -- is at port.  We've already given orders to the Navy a few days ago to lean forward, in terms of getting them ready to deploy.  They provide capabilities, but much like what DOD does provide, our capabilities are focused on trauma.  And so whether it's our field hospitals, whether it's our -- our -- our hospital ships, they are focused on trauma.  They don't have necessarily the -- the space, the segregated spaces you need to deal with infectious diseases.  And so one of the ways by which you could use either field hospitals, the -- the hospital ships or things in between is to take the pressure off of civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases, is to open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases.

Now for us, the -- the big challenge, though, isn't necessarily the availability of these inventories; it’s the medical professionals.  All those doctors and nurses either come from our medical treatment facilities or they come from the -- the Reserves, which means civilians.  And so we've got -- what we've got to be very conscious of and careful of as we call up these units and use them to support the states, that we aren't robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak.  So I don't -- what I don't want to do is take Reservists from a hospital where they are needed just to put them on a ship to take them somewhere else where they are needed.  So we've got to be very conscious of that.  And -- and as I've spoken to a couple governors today, we -- we talked a little bit about that, and I think people are beginning understand what that -- what that trade-off means.

Q:  You know, at the White House today, they said they were -- you know, they don't want to have the Guard go everywhere, I guess.  They -- they said, let's focus on the hotspots, so that would presumably be California, Washington State, New York.  Is that kind of where you're looking at early on to provide assistance?

SEC. ESPER:  Well keep in mind the Guard -- the Guard is already available to the governors, they know that -- they have their TAGs [The Adjutant Generals] and everybody, so it's a resource available at their fingertips. 

What we want to do is make sure they understand all the capabilities of the Guard, how it may best be used.  I've had a chance to talk to General Lengyel, who’s Director of the National Guard Bureau.  We've talked a few times.  He is talking to the TAGs.  He's having multiple phone calls each week to cross-level. 

So that is available to them.  I think.you know, in some ways we want to be the last resort, right?  We're the ones when everything really -- we can come in, rather than being the first, and really help enable through the Guard and Reserve to play that role initially. 

Q:  And also I'm hearing that there's talk of maybe appointing a senior officer, maybe a three-star to coordinate among all the various federal agencies -- is that something you guys are considering? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well the two principle representatives at the day-to-day meetings with the V.P. and his task force, are General Hyten and Deputy Secretary of Defense Norquist; those are our representatives.  General Hyten has a lot of capability; he can tap in to all of DOD as he sees fit.  Of course we have NORTHCOM, who supports in terms of the northern command AOR. 

But this isn't like a hurricane where you can put -- pick a general, this is nationwide.  So I think what you're going to see is -- you'll see whether it's local commanders or TAGs in this case, stepping up as their states encounter these challenges, and them being the focal point at the state level. 

STAFF:  Courtney.

Q:  Can you say a little bit more about the 2,000 deployable ventilators.  How many -- I'm assuming that takes uniformed service members to operate, and train, and whatnot -- how many would that take?  And where are they coming from?  And can you say where they're going yet?  Or presumably New York, but... 

SEC. ESPER:  I can't say where they're going -- we've made them available to HHS -- HHS would have to determine the prioritization, they're in stocks in some cases.  We'd have to get you more detail on where they are, but obviously they're spread out to support our medical deployablility. 

And, yes, these require some special training, what we'd have to do -- informed -- when we talked about this the other night with the vice president and his task force is, we'd have to do a train the trainer, if you will.  Maybe provide some people to make sure that the civilians who would use them, know how to use them properly. 

They're unique in terms of deployability, they've got single-use functions in some cases, so they are different than what you would find on the civilian end because they're meant to be deployable. 

Q:  So would it be -- if presumably, if it's 2,000 ventilators -- is that 2,000 service members who would have to be used to train? 

SEC. ESPER:  I would be speculating, but I would say no.  I would say one person can train a multitude of people to learn how to operate them, and maybe have them outside -- as an outside -- you know, to help with maintenance or things like that.  But I don't think the numbers -- we could do the math and get back to you on that Courtney, and see. 

STAFF:  Jennifer? 

Q:  Can you give us an update, Secretary Esper, about what Fort Detrick has found in terms of their vaccine, how far along are they?  And since you're encouraging people to telecommute, why did you feel the need to be there in person and have meetings with people in-person.  Shouldn't that telecommuting start now? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we're doing a lot of telecommuting every single day.  I telecommunicated with the Deputy Secretary of Defense this morning from my office to his office.  So when I went up there we had all the social distancing stuff worked out, the space.  But the chance to talk to the doctors face-to-face, and I wanted to see their labs, I want to see where they're working.  It's really helpful to me to get an understanding of what they're doing.  So we put all those precautions in place. 

If anybody knows how to do it, they know how to do it.  What I will tell you is they are working out on a number of fronts.  As many of you know who've been here before they've been very successful in the past whether it's dealing with Ebola or Zika, they have incredible capabilities. 

They are well-knitted -- extremely well-knitted into the interagency efforts; they're relationships with either Dr. Birx, and Dr. Fauci are remarkable; and you know, in terms of their ability to understand the virus, what it does and they're at the point to -- in terms of the ability to soon purchase machines that could do the testing at incredible levels of capacity and throughput is one of the things that they briefed me on that should be coming online in a couple months or so...

Q:  But how far along is the vaccine? 

SEC. ESPER:  I think they gave -- they gave me the same numbers that they gave all of you -- 12 to 18 months, the normal course.  As I understand it, there's some private actors out there who think they could do it quickly.  But in terms of how we do it, it's looking at 12 to 18 months.  And of course, where they could provide support is if somebody does develop a vaccine ,we could run it through our system very quickly as well and support those efforts. 

STAFF:  Barbara? 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, two questions.  First, could you bring us up to date -- when you talk about the Corps of Engineers, your latest assessment of what are the next steps are with the state of New York?  Because Governor Cuomo has been so open, publicly, about his requests. 

But first, I wanted to ask you -- you talked about using the U.S. military active duty, the Defense Department, as in your words, "a last resort, not the first resort."  I do want to press you a bit on that, because the country is being told this is unprecedented, really dire potentials are being sketched out to the American public.  Is it -- in your view, is it time to think in nontraditional ways about using the active duty force?  Should it be the last resort? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well when I talk about active duty force, I don't mean about people per say supporting in terms of planning and logistics, I'm thinking about as our medical capacity with regard to our treatment facilities -- things like that. 

We have to treat our own populations; our own populations will likely be, in terms of beneficiaries -- susceptible at the same rates that the civilian population.  So we provide a little bit of flex, if you compare us to VA, they have many, many more hospitals. 

So that's kind of how I think about it.  We -- again, we've got the Guard is available to handle stuff.  And the active component will stand. We're ready to support in any which way we can; I'm just suggesting I think a lot of this has to begin at the state and local level in terms of helping enable them. 

Q:  Do you think that the military population very often described in this room as young and healthy, is susceptible to the virus at the same rate as the civilian population?  And I would like you to address New York, if you could? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well you're -- don't turn me in to a doctor that I'm not, but I will tell you what I said before is, we have a very young, and healthy, and fit military population, which seems to imply, based on what we've seen so far that they are less likely to contract and show symptoms at the rates of people older than them. 

Now of course, many of them -- another part of our population are the dependents and beneficiaries who range from young kids to senior citizens.  So I've got to worry about that population as well; that's about 3.8 million people who live within 40 miles or so of our 36 military treatment facilities, so I'm looking at that population as well. 

With regard to the uniform people, I do think they are very fit, I think that they will fare well throughout this -- we watch them, and protect them, and as need-be, test them -- but again, I think in terms of the military population, they'll be fine. 

With regard to New York, I hope to have a call with the governor here sometime soon.  I've been trying to talk to a -- I've spoke to two governors today, find out what his needs are.  As I speak to governors and others, I say, tell us what your needs are and then we'll figure out the best way to meet them, whether it’s logistics, planning, medical, whatnot -- and then we can look at the various ways we approach it. 

Is the National Guard the first place?  If not them, then Reserves?  Active component is there as well to support.  So we kind of triaged the problem to make sure that we understand what all the trade-offs are.  Again, what I've -- what I think has been explained to you all about field hospitals, and hospital ships -- and the simple fact that many of those medical professionals who staff those units come from the private sector is -- is something that most people are not aware of.  And we've got to be very careful that we -- again, we don't take from one part of New York, medical professionals who are needed, to stand up a field hospital simply to help another part of New York -- unless, of course, the governor recognizes that.

And we can also do state-to-state stuff, where states share.  And I had a conversation earlier today about that.  So we're looking at everything on -- putting everything on the table.

STAFF:  All right.  We're going to try to go to the phone line and we'll take our first question from Jeff Schogol from Task & Purpose.  Jeff?

Q:  Thank you very much.  It has come to our attention that, despite the fact that the Pentagon is teleworking, commanders continue to have all-hands formations and town halls to discuss a variety of topics.  Will the Defense Department order a moratorium on all large gatherings like town halls and all-hands formations?

SEC. ESPER:  The short answer is no, at least not at this time.  I trust the commanders to lead their units and take of them appropriately.  And that has not been raised to me as a problem at this point in time.  So again, my view is the commanders have the authorities they need to take whatever precautions, but -- while at the same time ensuring the readiness of the troops and the capabilities of our formations.

STAFF:  OK.  Missy Ryan from Washington Post.

Q:  Thank you.  Secretary Esper, can you talk a little bit about the testing of service members that's being performed now?  It seems, according to the recent numbers that -- the most recent numbers we've seen, there have been about 500 people tested.  Do you think that that is adequate in order to detect the spread of the virus within the military community and halt its spread?  And what are the criteria for testing?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'll -- we can get the surgeon -- the Joint Staff surgeon back up here to talk about that to give you the exact details.  My view is, if you are symptomatic you should definitely be tested; otherwise, there's no plans to test all one million or so active-duty personnel.  That is, I don't believe, something we need to do at this point in time.  But again, I'd rely on the Joint Staff surgeon to kind of give us -- to fill you in with regard to how that is.  But if you're symptomatic, you definitely should be tested.  In some cases, if you've been exposed, you should be tested, but we're not at that point to (inaudible) across the formations...

STAFF:  All right, we'll do one more from the phone.  Lee Hudson, Aviation Week?

OK, back to the room. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, could you give us some sense of timing here?  How long does it require you to activate a Reserve unit if the governor of New York wants you to get the Army Corps of Engineers contracting to renovate hospitals or build new ones?  We learned with the wall that still is a contracting process that takes time.  So how long would it be before the U.S. military really started having an impact in the term -- in terms of hospital beds?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, it's another great point that I -- as I talk to people, I try and share with them.  So let's take your second part first, with the Corps of Engineers.  They do great work, very good program managers, but they have a number of federal rules and regulations they follow.  They have a very expansive contracting process and that takes time. 

The Corps of Engineers is -- does not build projects, they contract others to do the projects.  So my hunch is it would probably be quicker if it's done at the state or local level.  But nonetheless, I don't mind offering up the Corps of Engineers to come to a state to talk to whoever a governor wants them to speak to about -- with regard to renovating buildings or whatnot, to see if we can do it quicker, we should -- we're prepared to do that.  But I think at this point, the key is speed.  But again, I need to have those conversations with the governors and others.

With regard to your first question, you're right.  It takes -- look, I spent a lot of years in both the Guard and Reserve, and it takes time to activate people. Depending on the type of unit, it's -- you have to activate the person, but then you have to draw equipment, you have to do any number of things. 

And then in all cases, you have to, again, be very careful that you're not pulling somebody out of a part of the civilian sector where they're needed, whether -- and we keep talking about medical professionals, but it could be law enforcement, it could be firefighters, whatever the case may be.  So that takes a little bit of time, too, to make sure we're making the right decisions with regard to who we call up.

Q:  So you're describing a process that sounds like it's going to take weeks, not days?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, it could if -- depending on -- we -- I don't have any hard requests -- well, maybe one or two right now.  But if you're thinking about calling up the Guard and Reserves, it's not hours or days, it's probably days or weeks, and more like weeks.  Depending -- but it depends on the type of unit, where they're located, what they would have to bring to the -- to the mission, et cetera.

Q:  What are the hard requests?

SEC. ESPER:  Let me -- let me go to somebody else.

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  At the White House briefing today, the president suggested that there's actually been some discussions about potential sites for field hospitals.  Have you been advising on where these sites could potentially be -- maybe Washington State?

And then secondly on the ventilators, with the 2,000 that you're sending out, can you give us a sense of if there's greater need than that, if this gets worse, how much further can DOD surge before it needs to reach out to maybe the private sector, other places?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think on -- again, second question first, we can offer up to 2,000, doing that.  That's why I like to say the key thing right now -- when you look at the numbers of people that are projected that may need ventilators, 2,000 doesn't put much of a dent into it.  But we can offer what we have.

But I think the key thing is the private sector, the manufacturing side, whoever makes, you know, medical machines of this type, is how do you prime that pump to get the production?  Because we're simply not going to be able to meet the demand if the demand fits some of the profiles that we've seen in the CDC brief.

And then location of field hospitals, again, I think it's a case-by-case basis.  It has to depend on a conversation with the governor, or the state or local authority.  My view is, the best view -- the best use of our field hospitals, because they're geared toward, is trauma. 

So ideally what you would do is locate it somewhere, maybe next to a hospital, where as trauma patients come in, instead of going into the hospital, they would go into the field hospital, where we could treat the broken legs, the lacerations, the -- the falling down, hit-your-head type of stuff.  We can handle them in our big open bays, we have our doctors that can do that.

And if you come in for a COVID, we've now freed up rooms for you to go inside the hospital, where you have segregated rooms with bathrooms and all those things you need to treat infectious patients. 

So, not a doctor; I was an infantryman, not a medical professional.  But my hunch is, you'd want to do some type of colocation next to where medical facilities are.

But those -- that all has to be worked out with -- with the local state or municipality to make sure how can we best support, if that's the support they need.

STAFF:  Last question, last...

Q:  ... 2000 is the upper limit?

SEC. ESPER:  That's what we can offer right now, that's right.

STAFF:  Last question.

Q:  Thank you.  Pat Tucker from Defense One.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency currently has a program to develop an antigen.  It's kind of like a vaccine, but a little bit more proximate, it can potentially shield troops or anybody else from contracting the disease for a period of time until the -- a vaccine becomes available.

Can you describe, based on your conversations today, what the readiness level is or the level of preparedness for any sort of COVID therapeutic that might be in development by the U.S. military?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so I'm not tracking the DARPA one.  I hope to go see them sometime here soon to find out where they are in terms of their work.  They are part of all this too.

But with regard to USAMRIID, where I was today, they're working on two parts, both the vaccine and then the treatment piece, which is the therapeutics and -- and that -- so they're moving along on both fronts.  I didn't get too detailed of a briefing on the second part, I focused a lot on the vaccine side, so.

But that's something we can get the -- the Joint Staff surgeon to come and brief you all about, OK?

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Good.

Q:  Can we just get an update on the situation in Iraq?  Given that …

SEC. ESPER:  We’ll do that another day.  Today’s – coronavirus, that’s my focus right now.  Thank you all.