When the COVID-19 virus spread to the United States, the Defense Department took on many roles: protecting its people, supporting the national pandemic response, and ensuring the armed forces were ready to meet DOD's national security mission, a department official said today.
Robert G. Salesses, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, today addressed DOD's work during the pandemic at a virtual meeting of the National Defense Transportation Association's GovTravels, its new symposium for government travel and passenger service.
DOD is actively implementing President Joe Biden's new national strategy on COVID-19, he said. And DOD's priorities going forward are aimed at education, reinforcing mitigation efforts, expanding testing capability, getting the vaccine and continuing to support the nation.
"You can imagine the Department of Defense with 2.2 million people in uniform and 700,000 civilians in the contract workforce," he said, adding that communication was - and is - vital when putting in place restrictions of movement, social distancing, mask wearing and other mitigation measures. The 15,000 COVID-19 tests that are administered every day are also critical in controlling the spread of the virus.
"That kind of work, collectively, has been significant for the nation and for the Defense Department," he said, noting that nearly 990,000 doses of vaccine have been administered across DOD, so far.
"We have to adapt and evolve as we see the situation," Salesses said. It became clear that the medical professionals were needed around the country, so DOD adapted by providing medical professionals to help out in public and private hospitals.
Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers designed and built 38 alternate-care facilities to house patients in multiple states. The National Guard has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 mission. At the height of the pandemic crisis, there were more than 47,000 National Guard members deployed, he said. "They were supporting testing and emergency medical care and public health efforts in different states and territories, communications, transportation [and] logistics. And, even today, we have over 28,000 National Guard deployed around the states and territories, assisting the state and local officials."
The Defense Department was instrumental in supporting federal, state and local partners, he noted. For example, a public-private partnership among DOD, the federal Department of Health and Human Services and vaccine manufacturers has now led to the distribution of about 78 million vaccine doses, while about 59 million vaccinations have been administered, he said.
"There's been tremendous work done over the last year, and, in particular, over the last couple of months with the Biden administration to make sure the vaccine is going to be available and implemented," Salesses said. "And one of the initiatives [Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] made clear on his first day [was] that DOD must move further and faster to counter this pandemic. To that end, DOD is partnering right now with [HHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control] and state and local authorities to stand up mega and large vaccine centers."
DOD has also been focused on COVID-19 internationally. "A lot of great work was being done with our allies and partners, he said, adding that the department has helped more than 143 countries with testing, diagnostics, medical supplies and equipment.
As the United States continues to operate in a COVID-19 environment and go forward, it's vital to have strategic communications with coherent and consistent messaging so people know what's expected of them. It's also important to put aggressive mitigation measures in place to get the vaccine out to be more effective as a nation.