By Sandi Gohn
Since the end of January, the Wuhan coronavirus, which has infected roughly 40,000 people worldwide, has dominated headlines around the globe.
Given the severity of the outbreak, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern and the U.S. government has limited travel to China while implementing an unprecedented suspended entry of U.S. citizens and residents arriving stateside from the Chinese city.
Between being stuck on a cruise ship offshore in Japan, to being isolated under the watchful eye of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) at U.S. military bases stateside, hundreds of U.S. citizens and residents have been quarantined as a result of the outbreak.
While the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to provide housing support for HHS to conduct evacuee quarantines – no service members are directly in contact with the evacuees – the coronavirus outbreak does beg the question:
Is the U.S. military equipped to help fight coronavirus? Arguably, yes.
It’s no secret that the U.S. military is the largest fighting force in the world. But many civilians might not realize that thousands of service men and women are highly trained in exactly the types of skills needed to provide humanitarian aid during a major biological threat.
According to one Popular Mechanics story, the military is equipped to step in to help provide order, logistical support and medical expertise in the case of an outbreak.
“[While] active duty troops are generally prohibited from law enforcement missions … policing missions would typically go to National Guard units … other missions, including transportation, search and rescue, and medical support could be undertaken without legal restriction,” writes the author, Kyle Mizokami.
Here’s a look at just a handful of the ways that each branch of the U.S. military could step in to help in the event of a pandemic disease outbreak:
Did you know there are over 344,000,000 Google search results for the phrase ‘army medical career?’ From doctors and nurses, to research epidemiologists and more, there are thousands of Army personnel working in the cutting edge of medicine and science, including soldiers in units devoted enitrely to maintaining readiness in the case of a biological outbreak.
One example is the Army’s 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) Command. This group of 4,000 specially-trained soldiers and civilians posted across 16 states are focused on countering any biological threats at home or abroad. The command includes a slew of highly specialized smaller units, like the 1st Area Medical Laboratory (AML), which can set up remote laboratories for testing, like it did during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the event of an outbreak, the 20th CBRNE would be one of many units uniquely qualified to help provide support to the nation:
Fighting an outbreak isn’t just about providing medical care. In order to move medical personnel, supplies, patients, evacuees, etc. in a timely manner, a massive amount of logistical support would be required on land, sea and in the air.
Known as a “warehouse with wings,” the Air Force’s C-5 Super Galaxy airplane is the perfect machine to ferry people, supplies and more, wherever they need to go. According to USO corporate partner Lockheed Martin, who designed the aircraft, the C-5 is the:
“Air Force’s largest and only strategic airlifter… and can carry more cargo farther distances than any other aircraft. With a payload of six Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) or up to five helicopters, the C-5 can haul twice as much cargo as any other airlifter.”
In the event of a disease outbreak, being able to tap into the C-5’s capabilities would prove invaluable.
During a disease outbreak, hospitals and clinics are often overcrowded and busy. In the case of sudden and massive need to treat patients, the Navy’s two medical ships, the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, could come in handy.
Both ships are specially equipped to handle large-scale medical emergencies and contain “12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” according to the Navy.
Additionally, both vessels have a helicopter deck and each ship’s crew consists of about 71 civilians and up to 1,200 Navy personnel, although this can change depending on the mission.
Most recently, the USNS Comfort headed on a five-month deployment to the Caribbean and South and Central America in 2019 to provide medical care on the ship and at land-based sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems in the region.
Like the Army, the Marines also have special units trained to work in the case of a major outbreak, like the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF). CBIRF Marines’ expertise in battling biological threats is varied and valuable, thanks to a rigorous training course:
“Every Marine and sailor, from the commanding officer to the most junior member, must … learn to navigate their way through collapsed structures, perform emergency medical care, extract mass casualties from a contaminated area, and conduct decontamination operations. Ensuring that every individual assigned to CBIRF possesses these basic skills gives the unit a great deal of depth, and allows it to bring the full weight of the battalion to bear in the event of crisis.”
Although the Coast Guard is the smallest of the military branches, it’s full of highly-skilled personnel that could be vital in helping with a biological outbreak.
Technically a part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard is proficient at implementing and enforcing any maritime border protection mandates, which could help protect citizens from biological threats.
The branch’s storied roots in search and rescue have also helped it lead innovation in evacuation technology.
According to a 2019 Global Biodefense story, the Coast Guard developed a special portable isolation unit for evacuating infectious or contaminated patients, which would prove useful during a widespread epidemic. The system was originally developed to contain patients infected with airborne diseases, but testing shows it would also help with other types of biological and chemical agents.
This story originally appeared on USO.org in February 2020.
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