Transcript

Remarks by Secretary Esper in a Press Briefing on COVID-19 Response

March 23, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Okay, well, good afternoon, everyone.

I want to start by expressing my sympathy for the Defense Department contractor who passed away this Saturday after contracting coronavirus earlier this month.  Our thoughts go out to his family and friends as they mourn his tragic loss.

Over the weekend, the Department of Defense continued to take aggressive action to surge personnel, capabilities, and equipment in support of President Trump's whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  On the front lines of this fight are over 7,000 National Guardsmen operating across all 54 states, territories, and the District of Columbia, who continue to assess -- to assist state and local authorities in the response efforts.

In New York, Washington, and California, the president has approved mobilizing National Guard troops under Title 32 status, which provides them full access to federal resources but still allows them to be managed by the state government.  To be clear, this is not a move toward martial law, as some have erroneously claimed.

Our great National Guard troops are performing tasks such as supporting drive-through testing sites, conducting food delivery to protect vulnerable populations, and helping states plan and coordinate their local responses.  Allowing states to maintain control over their National Guard forces is the most effective way to manage their efforts, as it permits each governor to tailor the Guard's activities to best support the needs of their state.

Also, as the president announced yesterday, the hospital ship Mercy will deploy this week to Los Angeles.  We're working closely with FEMA to set the conditions for the ship's arrival later this week so that she can start receiving non-COVID-19 medical patients to free up bed space in some of L.A.'s most heavily stressed hospitals.

I spoke with the captain of the Mercy last week as he was making final preparations to set sail.  The men and women of the Mercy are highly trained professionals and are eager to join this fight to start helping their fellow Americans.

In the next couple of weeks, our other hospital ship, the Comfort, will head to New York City for the same purpose.  The crew and staff are already making the necessary preparations for the upcoming mission.  I had the chance to speak to that ship's captain as well.

Concurrently, we have a number of military field hospitals and expeditionary medical units on prepare-to-deploy orders that will be moving out this week.  The Army Corps of Engineers is also set to begin work to convert hotels, dormitories, and other buildings into temporary medical facilities across the country.

U.S. Army North has activated 10 defense coordinating elements collocated with each FEMA regional headquarters to synchronize requests for federal military assistance.  FEMA, as the lead agency for the federal response, will validate and prioritize these requests.  The Department of Defense will then deploy our forces around the country to provide this support as directed.

Additionally, the department continues to provide logistical support to American citizens around the world.  Last Friday, for example, we flew members of a U.S. women's football team home from Honduras after the country closed its borders.

We continue to keep our service members, civilians and family members around the world informed on the latest force health protection guidance.  Today, we are elevating the Pentagon Reservation's status to Health Protection Condition C, Charlie.  This limits the number of access points to the Pentagon and increases the amount of personnel who will telework, among a few other things.

Tomorrow, we will publish updated guidance on elective surgeries as we look for additional ways to free up medical capacity and resources to focus on COVID-19-related treatment.

In general, it is important that we all continue to employ protective measures including good hand-washing, proactive medical screening, and social distancing.  These can dramatically decrease the risk of an infection and slow the spread of virus.

The United States military remains well-prepared to defend the nation.  Although we have scaled back some of our major exercises, routine training continues across all services to ensure our forces maintain a high state of readiness.  I trust our commanders to make the best decisions for their units as they balance mission requirements with force health protection.

I am proud of our service members and DOD civilians and families who are answering the call all around our great country.  I want to thank them for our contributions to this fight.  By working together, we will defeat this virus and I am confident that our nation will come back even stronger.

Thank you.

STAFF:  And we'll now --

SEC. ESPER:  Let's take some questions.

STAFF:  -- take some questions.  We're going to go to the phone lines.  Lita with A.P.?

Q:  Hi, thanks for doing this.  And hi to everyone in the -- in the briefing room.

Mr. Secretary, two questions.

One, can you provide some additional details on the number of field hospitals and other hospitals units that the U.S. military is making available, and when and where you think they may go?

And then secondly, what impact do you think some of this is having on readiness?  There are a number of Navy sailors who have become ill.  Can you just give us an assessment of what impact you're seeing so far on readiness both in the United States and in war zones?

Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Thanks, Lita.

So, we have a number of hospitals and medical facilities, expeditionary medical facilities, across all three services.  We have put on what we call PTDO, prepare-to-deploy orders, five such units that will be prepared to deploy.  We will, of course, take our sourcing guidance from FEMA.

But right now, I anticipate sending a hospital to Seattle and a hospital to New York City.  And beyond that, once that's confirmed, we will look at sending to other places.  And as necessary, we will continue to alert units to prepare to deploy and then deploy them as appropriate.

With regard to readiness, we have -- as some of you know, we have 133 military personnel who have contracted the virus, and we are taking great care of them, watching them closely.  I've had a chance to talk to several of them, to check on them.

As this virus ramps up and spreads, we'll obviously see more and more impact of persons in our ranks.  I am confident that while it may have some impact on readiness, it will not affect our ability to conduct our national security missions, both at home and abroad.  So I'm very confident in terms of, again, the fitness, the health of our force, and the commanders’ ability to make sure they manage our resources and our people.

Keep in mind I've always outlined three priorities.  Number one, protecting our people and their families.  Number two, ensuring -- safeguarding -- we have our mission capabilities available to us.  And then number three, supporting the whole of nation -- government effort.

STAFF:  Jennifer Griffin?

SEC. ESPER:  Hi, Jennifer.

Q:  Hi.  Secretary Esper, last week we heard that the Army had excess capacity to test, about 16,000 tests they could run a day but they're running at a very small amount of that.  Why isn't the military helping the civilian labs with testing to ease the backload?

And if I could just ask a -- quickly, a question about Afghanistan, why did Secretary of State Pompeo feel the need to go out to Afghanistan?  From your perspective, is that -- is the so-called peace deal in jeopardy, and have you slowed the number of troops coming out of Afghanistan?

SEC. ESPER:  Well I don't want to get too much into Afghanistan today, I want to speak about coronavirus.  But I will say I spoke to Secretary Pompeo earlier today.  He's obviously over there to try and keep the process moving forward.  Otherwise, he'll be coming back.  I'm sure he'll speak to it more broadly once he returns to the United States.

On your first question... I've already forgotten what the first question was.

Q:  About testing.

SEC. ESPER:  Testing.  So it -- so we have 16 labs available.  We can test at least 6,000 a day, is our throughput.  I don't know where the 16,000 number came from but I think we're up to six -- 6,000 in terms of capacity.

The issue is test kits and as more of those come onboard, we can test more; but we have offered, again, those services up to the interagency to provide testing as we have excess capacity in our labs.  And if my numbers are wrong, somebody will clean it up afterwards but I think that's -- the last time I was briefed, those were the -- roughly the numbers.

STAFF:  Go to Courtney.

Q:  I just want to be clear on the field hospitals.  So the ones going to Seattle and New York City, you expect those to move out this week?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so -- and I just want to clarify -- so there's no confusion.  There are hospitals being provided by HHS.  I forget what exactly they are called but they are hospitals in the sense of beds, bed space, things like that.

Those are being provided to Seattle and I forget the other location.  It might have been New York, as well.  We are looking at deploying our field hospitals, which include the hospital, the equipment, and medical professionals, and my aim is to get them out this week.

My view is Seattle and New York City are the places.  We just need FEMA to validate that because, keep in mind, FEMA is the U.S. government's central place for handling requests and then validating them and then prioritizing them, so that's important.

But that was my notion, is we'd be moving up this week.

Q:  And then can you just give us a little more detail about changing the health protection condition to C at the Pentagon, exactly what that means?  How many -- are we -- I think we -- a lot of us here have been talking about how many people are actually working in the building right now prior to that and where you expect that number to -- is now and where it will go to under C?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, we can get you those numbers on who's working in the building now.  I think it's down considerably, maybe 60-some percent, if not more.  Again, I'm working off of numbers I was given last week.

There does come with a (HPCON) Charlie, additional measures, we talked about limiting the number of sites, some screening -- as -- we could go to medical screening in terms of temperature testing as people come in is another action that is looked at, and then of course everybody swiping as they come in.

So there are a number of things.  We should be putting out information more today.  There is no intent whatsoever, Barbara, to limit the access of the press and we want to keep the building open, again, for -- certainly for essential personnel and for the media.

STAFF:  And we're going to go to the phone lines, to Sylvie from AFP.

Q:  Yes, hello, Mr. Secretary.  Do you hear me?

SEC. ESPER:  I hear you.

Q:  Okay, thank you very much.  The President yesterday spoke briefly about a hostage who was liberated apparently with the help of DOD.  Could you (inaudible) about that?

SEC. ESPER:  Did you say "hostage"?

Q:  Yes, the hostage.

SEC. ESPER:  Well we had a -- we had a young lady -- a young American who was the victim of a violent crime in Honduras, I believe.  She has been returned to the United States and I just say out of respect for her and her family, for her privacy, we'll just leave it at that.

STAFF:  Go to Barbara Starr.

SEC. ESPER:  I've already answered your question, Barbara, so we can skip you, I guess.

Q:  Never.  Or hopefully never.  You said something really interesting.  You said that you do expect now some impact on readiness.  To the best of my recollection, it's the first time you've publicly at least said that.  So could you just expand a little bit?  What are you hearing from your folks about what you expect that impact on readiness to be?

And if there is such a thing, how come the Defense Department was, like the civilian sector perhaps, not better prepared to deal with a pandemic situation?  But -- but I've never heard you say before --

SEC. ESPER:  Well first of all, I think we are prepared for a pandemic.  We have pandemic plans in place, we've been exercising them now since late January, if you will.  The commanders have been executing their plans.  We've had -- we've stocked up millions of supplies, the United States military in our strategic stockpile, to handle it with regard to PPE and other pieces of equipment.

But let's go back to your first question.  What I said is if this pandemic continues at the scale and scope of what some are predicting, is over time you could start seeing an impact on readiness because you -- as you know, we're curtailing some exercises, and as you curtail exercises over time, that -- that could have an impact on readiness but nothing to which I fear impacts our mission readiness to conduct our national missions.

That's just common sense, I think, but again, it depends on how long this lasts, the extent of it, the impact on our population is the other thing I think I mentioned.  All those things are factors that we'll take into consideration over time.

Remember, our most important asset, our most critical resource is our people and I want to make sure we take care of them.  That's why I've said from the beginning, since I've been speaking to you all, number one of our three priorities -- number one is taking care of our people because if you can't take care of your people, you can't take care of number two, which is safeguarding our national mission capabilities.

That's why we're exercising a lot of due diligence with regard to our -- the health of the force.

Q:  Just to be clear, is it your sense that the Department -- that you were -- knew, General Milley knew by the -- by January that the -- that COVID-19 was a pandemic situation?

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, I'm not going to -- I can't think --

Q:  You said the --

SEC. ESPER:  I can't think as far back as yesterday, let alone two -- two or three months ago.  You know, the -- the -- the use of the word "pandemic" is a call made by medical professionals, not by us.  We always are very careful as to what's happening in the world and understanding the world around us in order to protect the force.

So we've always -- and we always take precautions.  I mean, is -- some of you know who have deployed with us, you can't go on a deployment without getting multiple checks, whether it's dental, physical checks, things like that.

So we're always very conscious of the health of the force before it deploys on a -- on a military mission.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Idrees?

Q:  Has there been any consideration towards moving active duty military doctors away from their jobs towards dealing with sort of the coronavirus treatment?  And more broadly, you talked about some -- two field hospitals.  How many do you eventually think will be needed?  Are we talking dozens?  I mean, what's the scale?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we only have so much capacity to begin with because again, at the end of the day, we have to protect our mission capabilities as -- as I was just discussing with Barbara and you all in the past.  So there's going to be a limit to what we can provide if we want to safeguard our military capability.

With regard to your first question, I -- I've said before here that when you look at our field hospitals, when you look at the hospital ships, most – many -- most, a majority of the people from those ships, the medical professionals, will come from the Reserves.  So we're very conscious of where we pull the Reserves from.  The balance will likely come from active duty military treatment facilities.  So we're very conscious, as we draw people to staff up the ships or the hospitals, where we're pulling them from because you're robbing -- you're taking away from Peter to pay Paul, and you've got to make sure that you don't, you know, have an impact on an area that really needs it simply because you're trying to staff up a ship or a hospital.

Q:  Have you used any active duty military doctors so far?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we haven't -- I'd -- I -- when I talk to the -- the ship's captains last week they didn't give me a count as to -- they were still in the process of calling people up -- how many were active and how many were Reserve.  But we -- we will have those numbers in due course.

STAFF:  And going back to the phone lines, Jeff Schogol from Task & Purpose.

Q:  Thank you very much.  Mr. Secretary, I know you say you trust commanders to make the appropriate decision, but we found there's no consistency on lower echelons when it comes to either social distancing or how far troops can go on leave on the weekend.   Commanders are still holding all-hands formations and town halls to talk about the need to be socially distant when they're standing right next to each other.  Can I ask, where is this guidance from DOD on what to do and what to avoid, so that it can slow the spread of this disease?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, Jeff, and for all of you -- look, it's -- there -- there's -- there will be inconsistencies because every situation is unique.  It's unique by the type of unit.  It's unique by the mission.  It's unique by the location, and any other number of a factors.

Now, in other cases where we could clearly have done better, we clearly could have done better, and we will continue to work to do better.  But again, I have to trust our commanders and our senior NCOs are taking all the right precautions.  We're fully implementing the CDC guidance.  We are also working hard to implement the president's 15-day plan to slow the -- the spread of the virus.  So there will be inconsistencies.  I'm sure all of you will learn of more inconsistencies, but we continue to emphasize the guidelines provided, and we continue to power down to the commanders to do what they think is best.

STAFF:  (inaudible)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I think it was a week ago you talked about DOD setting aside 5 million masks --

SEC. ESPER:  Right.

Q:  -- a million immediately, and then I think you said 10,000 -- 2,000 ventilators.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  Can you give us an update?  How many have gone out, and do you have a sense where they're going?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I -- I don't at my fingertips.  We've offered those up.  They're now in the FEMA system, in terms of responding.  But you're right, we offered up 1 million immediately, with regard to the N-95 respirators; up to 5 million total coming out of our strategic stockpile.  And then we discussed the ventilators this morning.  We're pulling those all in; in the process of doing that, and those are going to be offered up to FEMA, as well.  Again, I -- I don't have the details on where they are going to apply them. 

FEMA, again, is the central repository processing place to do both validate and requirements, and then prioritizing the requirements.

Q:  So when the 5 million will be all distributed, or (inaudible) --

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I don't, but we can -- we can get you off to the side afterward and tell you -- give you some more details as we have them.

STAFF:  (inaudible)?

Q:  So follow up on Jeff’s question about the social distancing --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- and commanders having control of that.  Is there any accountability, or do you think any further measures are needed along those lines?  Because you said, you know, there are unique situations.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  But we're getting tips also about MEPS being totally packed, and even though they are all being screened beforehand, is that -- does that mean that they don't need to be six feet apart, or organizations that are deployed to Kuwait, where they're still having big meetings together.  Just because there's no coronavirus in Kuwait that they know of, does that mean that they shouldn't be six feet apart?  Or should the military -- should the military be all in this together on this (inaudible) --

SEC. ESPER:  Again, you just gave -- you just gave like six different examples, of which there's probably 30 different variables, and we could all step into that same location and make a different call in each.  That's why I have to trust the commanders.  If there's something that sounds really egregious or whatnot, yeah, we should follow up on that using the chain of command.  But again, I can't put out a blanket policy, if you will, that we would then apply to everybody, because every situation's different.  Tell me how I do six feet distancing in a -- in a -- in an attack submarine?  So -- or how do I do that in a -- in a, you know, a bomber with two pilots sitting side-by-side?  All these situations are different. 

We give the guidelines passed by CDC, which are some underlying principles, and we ask commanders at all levels, right, whether you're a young platoon leader like I once was, or a -- or a -- a division commander like General Milley once was to implement, use their best guidance and get it down to the force, and then ask commanders to implement -- and, by the way, their senior NCOs.  So we're doing our best as we find, you know, things that just don't make sense, we certainly will pull the string on that and make sure we get it remedied.

Q:  Is there anything you found that doesn't make sense that you would have asked to be following up on?

SEC. ESPER:  No, not yet.  Not yet.

STAFF:  We've got time for one more from the phone and one more from the room.  So on the phone line, Phil Stewart.

Q:  So hi there.  Thanks -- thanks again.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Sorry, Phil.  I know we had to draw you away from your Xbox.

Q:  Can you please clarify, if there are -- there are no rules force wide, does that mean that there's also no force-wide mandate on testing?  Has there been any kind of expansion on testing and whether or not the -- you know, more troops are going to be tested in places where there are higher outbreaks than there are now?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, unlike with the guidance we're giving on social distancing and other best practices, the -- we're going to give -- we've given the same guidance that Dr. Fauci and others have given with regard to testing.  There is no need to test unless you are symptomatic, and if you are symptomatic, then you will get a test.  And that's kind of the general rule -- rule we've been following.  That's what's been issued across the country.  That's the rule we are following here at the Pentagon, as well.

STAFF:  And we'll go to Tara.

Q:  Thank you.  Could you just tell us, how many beds the field hospitals will have that are going to Seattle?  And then last week, we understood that the Mercy was actually on orders already for Seattle, but will be going to Los Angeles instead.  Could you walk us through, you know, what changed your mind on that particular deployment?  And then last, as we see more, you know, senior leaders and lawmakers test positive, have you taken the coronavirus test, and your results?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.  So I -- I've been screened for temperature numerous times.  I've not taken a test.  I've, knock wood, have -- have been asymptomatic.  If I get symptoms, then I will take the test.  I'm going to live by the rules that we're putting out to our -- our troops, and that's been given to us by the CDC and Dr. Fauci.  That's number one.

Number two was --

Q:  The field hospital sizes.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so it depends, right?  They're -- they are different sizes, depending on the service and the type of hospital.  The largest we have, as I recall, are the Army field hospitals, 248 beds.  I suspect that that will be the one that -- the type that we are sending because they -- they give the highest capacity in one fell swoop. 

And then you asked about why Seattle versus -- so I -- what I was giving you was my hunch last week as to where to send it to, based on the signals we were getting at different sites across the country.  But again, it's FEMA.  It's FEMA's call.  FEMA made the call based on, I think they have eight critical factors they assess, based on where the need is and where the need may be, and they were the ones that recommended to make the call that -- that the Mercy go to Los Angeles instead of Seattle.

Q:  Just as a quick follow-up, if Seattle, though, does need both a DOD field hospital and an HHS field hospital, shouldn't it have also possibly needed the Mercy?

SEC. ESPER:  Again, I'd have to refer you to FEMA on what their decision tree looks like, all the factors they consider.  We're going to support FEMA in this, as we do in any type of other emergencies, and send our capabilities where they're needed.  That's why I anticipate the need to send to a field hospital to Seattle.  I think HHS is sending hospital support to Seattle, as well, and we've had to just get you -- connect with FEMA or get you, you know, information back through our folks as to why; what their criteria is and how they applied it.

But that's who we're -- that's who we're relying on to validate requirements, and then -- then to prioritize this.  Because I could tell you, I've spoken with seven, eight, nine, 10 governors so far.  Each one of them has had requests for field hospitals; those who have been, you know, along the coastline have talked about the need for ships, so we clearly can't meet everybody's needs with what we have in our inventory, so we rely on FEMA to do the -- to do the assessment, the validation, and then the prioritization.

I anticipate -- this is me now, talking out loud -- how I see -- foresee our hospitals being used is, during the early stages of the pandemic, the virus hitting a city, where they're still trying to ramp up capability and bed space, we can come in for a short period of time, for a few weeks, to provide that capacity until they get either gyms converted, hotels converted, college dorms converted.

All those things that the Corps of Engineers is working on right now, that they're -- in fact, General Semonite has been discussing with New York City to expand capacity.  Because what we're talking about is the need for thousands of beds.  We could provide, in a field hospital, 248.  And we only have so many field hospitals.

So I see us playing this role where we're the gap-filler for a period of weeks, with our capabilities.  Once the capacity is met through these other mechanisms, again, I talked about expanding supply, but you could reduce demand by curtailing elective surgeries and things like that.  We can then pull out and go to the next site and cover, again, that gap for the next city or locality that is ramping up.

That's how I think it will play out.  But, again, we're looking at that closely, trying to model how this may spread and how it may affect the country.

Q:  Can I just quickly follow-up on that for a second.  Army Corps, of course, is involved in helping New York and so forth.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.

Q:  What about the Seabees?  Are they going to get involved?  Because they can do things fairly quickly.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so those are -- you know, I don't know all the capabilities of the Seabees, but you're talking more -- I don't want to say purely combat engineers, but construction engineers.  But the -- I think what we've assessed at this point in time, is that constructing facilities, hospitals and whatnot, would take far more time than it would to take existing infrastructure and convert it.

The state of New York has been very aggressive, they've already identified sites.  The Corps is assessing those sites.  The Corps can quickly go in and they've got what's a four-phase model.  Phase one is to identify the site, that is the state's responsibility.  And in the case of New York, they've already done that.

And number two is where they build -- the Corps builds, with FEMA's help -- and so they go and they run additional electrical lines, they set up WiFi, they can reconfigure the insides of a building to set up nurses' stations, monitoring stations, et cetera.

Third phase, FEMA comes in, provides medical equipment, the medical supplies, et cetera.  And then the fourth phase is when the state comes in and brings their medical professionals.

So this is the rough model that's been mapped out, a four-phase approach.  I've talked again to the state of New York about it, I've talked to other governors about it.  And so we're dispatching the Corps to go around to all these other states and you know, particularly cities because that's the way you can expand capacity in the volume you need.  We're talking thousands.

But it takes some time, it will take a few weeks to do all that.  And you're also contracting with local builders and renovators and whatnot.  So it's in between the time from problem recognition to when you start -- can open up that bed space in the thousands, that we can provide -- along with HHS and others, with these mobile hospitals and beds -- we can provide that capacity to fill the gap until the rest of that gets -- is made available.

Make sense?

Q:  Sir, in Peru, is the military going to airlift Americans the way they did in Honduras?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we're talking to the State Department about that.  What we have to figure out is, is make sure we have a good protocol for how we approach that, right?  Clearly, you know, in the case of China when we first pulled U.S. State Department people out of China, it was State Department-contracted aircraft, and then we put them in quarantine at our bases.

Same thing with the next tranche of folks coming off of cruise lines, that was contracted I think by HHS.  And so we've got to look at what the best way is.  I think the best way is contract air through either State or HHS -- or maybe it's FEMA, I don't know.  We've got to work through that.

But we're always available in -- if we can't get those other mechanisms to work, to provide military aircraft.  But that will probably be more on the latter end, the least likely option than the first likely option, okay?

Q:  Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Good, thank you all very much.