By Dan Lamothe March 22, 2020 at 10:24 a.m. PDT
As the coronavirus forces bars, restaurants and schools to close across the nation, Nicole Radcliffe has grown frustrated that her husband, a Marine, and thousands of his colleagues in nonessential roles must continue to report to work on bases in North Carolina.
Commanders there have taken some precautions, such as restricting Marines and sailors returning from high-risk areas to their barracks and stressing the need for good hygiene. But Radcliffe and other concerned family members say it isn’t enough.
“While I applaud the measures that have been taken, I feel more can and should be done,” said Radcliffe, a Marine veteran who is awaiting the birth of her second child. “All appropriate measures to stop transmission should be taken. The military is not exempt from this.”
The safety concerns as the virus spreads highlight the Pentagon’s challenges in preparing for the pandemic as calls grow louder for it to take a greater role in the U.S. response.
A defense contractor who tested positive for the virus and worked at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency died on Saturday, the Pentagon said. That marks the first Defense Department death associated with covid-19.
While President Trump has fashioned himself in recent days as a “wartime president” battling a new threat, defense officials warn that there are limitations to what the military can do as it safeguards national security and tries to protect 1 million-plus service members from the virus.
“It is at the end of the day a political and soul-of-the nation issue when it comes to how much to pull in the military, and in what ways,” said Kathleen H. Hicks, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
About 7,300 National Guardsmen spread across all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia have been activated so far, military officials said in a statement Sunday. They are performing tasks that range from teaching others how to wear protective equipment to flying testing swabs from Italy.
Tens of thousands of guardsmen eventually could be called upon, officials say, a major commitment for a force whose members usually have civilian jobs.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the department will make its laboratories available to test civilians, and senior Army officials have said they have a plan in place to increase testing capacity from 810 samples per day to more than 16,000. But the timeline for doing so is not yet clear, said Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, the Army’s surgeon general.
The Navy’s two hospital ships, the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, are being prepared for deployments in the coming days, Trump announced last week. But neither is designed to handle virus patients because of their open floor plans, so the military has offered them to treat other illnesses and injuries to free up bed space in civilian hospitals. The Comfort, promised to New York, is not expected to arrive for a few weeks.