Can the US military be deployed to help stop the coronavirus?

Jack Murphy
March 16, 2020 - 10:51 am
Screening Checkpoint

Photo by Staff Sgt. Greg Nash

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The New York Times ran an opinion piece penned by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo directly addressed to President Donald Trump requesting federal assistance in fighting the coronavirus. Gov. Cuomo asked for the Food and Drug Administration to immediately authorize the use of new tests that could detect carriers of the virus amongst other measures, including troop deployments and the use of military bases. 

There are 3,774 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States including 69 deaths. In Italy, there are 24,747 confirmed cases and 1,809 deaths according to a virus tracking map compiled by Johns Hopkins. Currently, cases in America are trending upward as the virus spreads but it is unknown what number will be reached before the virus hits a peak and then confirmed cases begin to ebb. In the meantime, there are serious concerns that America's health care system could be overwhelmed with sick people the way it has been in Italy where patients have had to be triaged. 

 "States cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough," Gov. Cuomo wrote in his op-ed this weekend. "At this point, our best hope is to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities — like military bases or college dormitories — to serve as temporary medical centers. Then we can designate existing hospital beds for the acutely ill."

Gov. Cuomo elaborated, "we believe the use of active duty Army Corps personnel would not violate federal law because this is a national disaster. Doing so still won’t provide enough intensive care beds, but it is our best hope."

The Army Corps of Engineers is staffed largely by civilians and already works extensively within the United States on public works projects, particularly related to dams and waterways. Gov. Cuomo is correct in pointing out that they can be deployed to help work on projects like erecting field hospitals and such on military bases or on federal property without violating any laws. 

The National Guard has already been deployed in six states, including New York. The National Guard works for the governor of their state and requires no additional authorizations in order to be deployed domestically for civil relief projects. The active-duty military is a bit different though but could be utilized in a time of an emergency if the President authorizes it according to legal experts. Domestic deployments are often controversial due to the Posse Comitatus Act which limits, but not entirely prohibits, active duty military deployments on U.S. soil. States can make requests for civil assistance to the Pentagon and there have been exceptions. 

For instance, in 2005 elements from the 82nd Airborne Division were rapidly deployed from Ft. Bragg, N.C. to New Orleans, La. in order to conduct search and rescue missions as well as secure key infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

With the White House having declared a state of national emergency, the U.S. military and its substantial resources could potentially be brought to the forefront in order to help treat civilians, run screening checkpoints, and establish field hospitals in the coming days and weeks.

At a press conference on Monday, the President and Vice President referred to having a video teleconference with governors where they mentioned drive up testing and community-based testing for the coronavirus as well as sourcing additional resources for state leaders.

When asked specifically about Gov. Cuomo's request for the Army Corps of Engineers to help build facilities to house patients, President Trump answered, "We're looking into it. We've heard that. We've heard it from, really, two places. There are two places that have -- specifically, New York being one. And we are looking into it very strongly." 

Connecting Vets reached out to Gov. Cuomo's press office for comment but had not received a reply at the time of publication.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.