COVID-19 response: Secretary McCarthy hosts press conference with Gen. McConville

By U.S. ArmyMarch 20, 2020

FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Secretary McCarthy hosted a media roundtable from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases after a tour and update of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command's efforts in response to COVID19.

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U.S. Army guidance on Coronavirus:



- Secretary McCarthy: I'll give you a little framework of what we just discussed this morning. We clearly talked about all activities that the US Army are taking in support of the Commander in Chief's guidance for the fight against COVID-19. This morning General's McConnville, Grinston, and I sat down with MRDC leadership and went through the three lines of operation of prevention, detection, and treatment that the Medical Research and Development Command has organized against this extraordinary challenge. We talked a little bit about the infusion of funding that's coming from the second, and then the supplemental that was just passed the other night, but also the request for just shy of $900 million to finance those activities across those three lines of effort. How the team has postured itself to expand its capacity to attack those lines of effort, there's about five tracks of vaccine efforts with a couple dozen candidates that are being worked between the private sector and the government. They talked us through how they're looking at these various candidates and ultimately will select the best force to vacc and get through the process. As well as on the prevention side, we looked at the diagnostic kit capacity and how they're working with industry to increase capacity of testing from both a mobile site to as well as some much more larger scale national-like capabilities, and as well as on the treatment fund. They actually walked us through how the soldier in Korea who was one of the first soldiers infected by this terrible virus and how his treatment has been going. Very fortunately for us, an officer who was stationed here is one of his attending physicians forward, so they have great relationships and the passing of the information. I tell you, it's extraordinary the pressure that is under that soldier's family, and he's donating his blood, and he is doing everything he can to be supportive in this process. So, God bless him and his family as he gets through this fight. We got to spend a few hours with some extraordinary Americans who are at the forefront of this fight. We're getting them all the resources that they can, trying to get them as much time and energy as they can, and knock down any roadblocks that are in their path of moving samples, getting through bureaucratic hurdles. So, putting the entire weight of the Army behind this effort. I'd like the chief to make a couple comments, and then we can open up from questions.

- Gen. McConville: The heroes of this fight are gonna be some of the people we saw today. The scientists that are working to find the vaccinations, the scientists that are working to find the drugs for treatment, the scientists that are aggressively increasing the capacity of the testing capability. And then all those medical professionals. Those doctors, those nurses that are throughout the country that are really gonna defeat this virus. But we are here to assist them, and we are very proud of what they are doing.

- Reporter: I'd like to ask you if you see that it's been (fades out) that decision, and if so, at what point does the suspension of troop deployment affect readiness, and do you potentially see a shortage of resources (fades out) come back from overseas?

- Gen. McConville: I think what we're seeing is as commanders are doing risk assessments in each of their areas, they're making sure that they have the appropriate force available to conduct the mission. That's what General Miller is doing. He's assessing the situation over the next 30 days, and he'll basically do an assessment of risk to mission, which he's already accomplished, and risk to force. We'll work that very closely with him.

- Reporter: At what point do you see it potentially affecting readiness overall? Could it extend the (fades out) potentially?

- Gen. McConville: I think what you're gonna see is over the next 30 to 60 days, we're watching this very, very closely and providing the resources for screening and testing so we get an assessment of what the risk to the force is. Then from that we can determine what the risk to the mission is. So we don't know yet exactly how that's gonna play out, but we do have the procedures and measures in place to conduct the missions, and at the same time protect the force.

- Reporter: On the conditions (fades out) at full capacity, is there any update on the release of that money?

- Secretary McCarthy: Over the last, I guess it was, eight or nine months there was work that had been going on back and forth between the MRDC and Office of Secretary of Defense. The business model for this organization is a reimbursable model. So other government agencies will then come here put work orders in and they would conduct the research. What you're reflecting is the funding associated with that. There was some back and forth just about the operating model with how things would work. For example, General Talley, any other specifics I may miss. But that was part and parcel of just how it operates. The MRDC has been moving towards a rate board so that they can much more clearly articulate the costs of how the work gets done, and then going forward they'll operate under that different model. With respect to resources though, over the last, I would say, 30 days, General Talley, correct me if I'm wrong, we've been moving millions and millions of dollars. There's a $900 million request that's in the third supplemental. So there's an infusion of financial resources that are coming to MRDC. General Tally, anything you want to add.

- Brig. Gen. Talley: Absolutely. With respect to the COVID efforts, we have to think of that completely separate and different from our funding streams. Secretary of the Army, Chief of Staff of the Army, they're very good at just securing the dollars that are gonna come in for that specific research. With respect to RIID, US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, if you think of a two-fold mission, which one is for research, basic research that goes after the diseases, the non-battle injuries, if you will, that affect our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Then there's a response mission. Like what we're facing right now with COVID. If you go back to the Ebola crisis, even Zika, this laboratory has played an important role in the discoveries towards prevention, treatment, and detection. So a completely different funding stream. We're working well right now with OSD for that temporary funding withhold, again, getting the financial apparatus to where we can manage effectively. But with respect to COVID-19, no disruptions whatsoever, and we're expecting, in fact we've actually received additional funding for that effort. Thanks for the question.

- Reporter: Are there additional resources that can be put toward this fight? Is Army doing more?

- Secretary McCarthy: There's a variety of different capabilities that can be brought forward, whether it's medical support, it's also the research like we're talking about here. We're learning everyday around the country, and we're learning from Korea and Italy. One thing I know is remiss to say, in my opening remarks is just the extraordinary performance of General Abe Abrams in Korea, and Major General Roger Cloutier in Italy, and how they've been able to protect the force forward in some very tough environments. We've learned a lot from the tactics, techniques, and procedures, just how they prevented the outbreak, and be able to protect the force in this difficult climate. I don't know if you're referring to doing more for around the country, we have combat support hospitals on prepared to deploy orders. The US Navy is deploying their ships, the Comfort and the Mercy, which are hospital ships. We have additional capabilities that we're looking at. But a lot of it comes down to working with the state levels and knowing what their needs are, and they ultimately and Commander in Chief make decision to push those capabilities forward.

- Reporter: How is gonna impact your recruiting all through this year? What adjustments are you making or will you be making when it comes to the throughput of recruits to their units, or even into basic training itself?

- Secretary McCarthy: I would say initially, and the Chief can comment as well, but we were in very good shape with this recruiting cycle, actually ahead of goal, substantially ahead. So we have some margin at this point. But we're learning everyday. Is this a flu virus that is seasonal? Will it boomerang back in this next cycle? Everyday we know more. So when you hear the leaders like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield talking about testing, we're getting more data everyday. We're getting smarter on this problem everyday. The measures that we've taken, it's a lot of it is risk-based. There are areas of the country that are being affected more than others, Washington State, New York. If you look at young men and women that feel like they need to stay home and be with their families, we're looking at options like delayed bonuses and others, so that we can keep them in the queue, try to weather through this very difficult period, and then ship later. So I think Major General Frank Muth in Army Recruiting Command is doing a remarkable job, and he's 45 here, 50 there. He's got his finger on the pulse of this effort. We're looking at measures of how do you move troops through the MEPS process, and ultimately to a recruiting location. But we've got to be as safe as we can. We have got to be able to protect the force. The world is complex and dangerous on any given day. Now you add these additional conditions. We're literally managing this on a case-by-case basis in the department and we're making very appropriate risk-based decisions. Chief.

- Gen. McConville: Parents are sending us their sons and daughters, and we have an obligation to take care of them. Many of these young men and women were expecting to go to work. So they've quit their jobs to go ahead and serve. So we're very cognizant of that, as the Secretary said. If for some reason the situation does not allow them to ship then we're looking at ways we can possibly compensate them so they're not unemployed and they made the commitment to us. But the second thing is we're putting in place is measures all along the way to protect these young men and women. So when they go to a recruiter, before they leave the recruiter they'll be screened. When they go to the military entrance processing station, which we like to MEPS, I had to kinda remember what that meant because I thought you might ask me, but that's where they go. We're doing the same type of screening there. Then when they go to one of our four training sites, whether it's Fort Jackson, Fort Benning, Fort Leonard Wood, or Fort Sill, is we want, again, bring them in, test them. They have the capability if someone shows some of the symptoms we have the ability there to go ahead and quarantine them and make sure they have the necessary medical capability. So their safety is secure all the way through the process. What we're really trying to do with our bases in a lot of ways is what General Abrams found is the closer you can make it to a safety bubble where everyone is screened and we're not in a position to be affected by the coronavirus, the better off we'll be. But we are, prior to that, this week we've kinda reduced the amounts of recruits that we would normally send up and see how that plays out. We're gonna adapt the process and come back with some recommendations.

- Reporter: So at this time you're not accepting recruits into the four basic training camps?

- Gen. McConville: Oh, yeah, we are. We're shipping right now. We are.

- Reporter: No, no, you're having some.

- Gen. McConville: What we're doing is we're putting procedures to allow us to continue to ship. That's gonna basically be based on, soldiers will continue to ship to basic training.

- Secretary McCarthy: But literally getting done case-by-case. If you were on this VTC with us yesterday, you would have seen Major General Frank Muth was drilling down into zip codes of just where these young men and women are coming from, making risk-based decisions, communicating with them based off of challenges they may face in their neighborhoods, and we're gonna manage that accordingly. Looking to see if you can put a delayed bonus or something of that nature to keep them in the queue, but to try to weather through this very, very difficult period.

- Nancy, did you have a follow-up?

- Nancy: I just have a operations question, if I could. We heard yesterday that there's a thousands beds available through, I think, the Army and the Air Force, or military hospitals. Can you tell us what units have been called up? How many could be called up and what capacity you could offer in terms of military hospitals going forward?

- Secretary McCarthy: There's two combat support hospitals that are in prepared to deploy orders. That's very short-string, bags packed, gettin' ready to go. Now, each one of those hospitals, correct me if I'm wrong, Chief, is 264 beds in each of those two hospitals. Then they have ICU capabilities. 284 excuse me. We'll get you the math. But that's two of these hospitals, two field hospitals. We have more capabilities. But obviously we have 191,000 troops deployed right now. So we have the baseline of capabilities, and we're working with the Office of Secretary of Defense on the capabilities moving forward. One thing we really need to think about is the National Guard is on the front end of this. Guard units supporting in their states, I think they're referring to "front two" was General Fredericks from the Joint Staff.

- Reporter: Yes, sir.

- Secretary McCarthy: He was talking about some active duty capabilities that we could bring very quickly to the most affected states at this point, Washington State and New York, in particular. But they're on the short string to support that initially. Now, I think it's very important in your reporting to look and see just how much the National Guard is doing at this juncture.

- Secretary McCarthy: Chief, anything you want to add?

- Gen. McConville: Now, I do want to tell the National Guard, one of the decisions that you heard we made, the 81st Striker Brigade Combat Team, will not deploy to combat training center. That's a fairly significant event, because those soldiers are coming from Washington and California. So one of the ways we support the community, quite frankly, is saying we're not gonna take those guardsmen and put them in a training environment because we're anticipating that they, when we talk to the states they need to be used locally to help with logistics, to help with medical. So those are some of the types of things we're doing. The Secretary talked about we have different types of hospitals. We have what we call combat support hospitals that is 248 beds. We're in process of going in and transitioning to field hospitals that have 32 beds, but they can augmented. So we have different capabilities that we're putting on the active force. We're saying who's ready to go? Who's not ready to go? Get ready to go. But the other thing is we're doing risk mitigation, because these doctors, these nurses, these medical professionals, they also work in medical treatment facilities. On our reserve side many of these medical professionals, they're actually working in the community. So if we take them and call them up in the Reserves, we may be taking them out of the very communities that we're trying to help. So that's what we're going down to the person. Is this person engaged in providing medical support in and area that they really 'em? If we call them up, are we gonna hurt the community? We're getting down to that level on who we pick.

- Secretary McCarthy: This, as well as what the chief mentioned, is changing the configuration of these hospitals from just pure trauma to working infectious diseases. They're in the process of that and be ready shortly.

- Gen. McConville: That's the point which I really want to reinforce the Secretary made. These hospitals are really designed for combat-type operations, trauma, gunshot wounds, blasts, and those type things. They're not really designed for infectious diseases. But what the military can do is maybe take the load off and allow these civilian hospitals to focus on these issues. The other thing we're doing is our Corps of Engineers is working very closely with at least four governors right now. or head of the engineers, Todd Semonite, met with the New York governor. People talk about can we build hospitals? Well, we think the fastest way is to take a look at hotels and dormitories that are available, and then rescope them. Maybe put in the power they need very quickly. Some even talking about putting under pressure into the capabilities so that if there's any type of disease it stays in, it doesn't go out. But we can quickly build capacity in this way. We did this during World War II. The Greenbriar, which sits out, if anyone's ever been to Greenbriar, was an army hospital during World War II. So this is not something new.

- Reporter: Do you see the idea of using hospitals and dormitories, is that eminent? Is that something we can expect to see as a decision being made? Or is that an idea that's-

- Gen. McConville: Well, what we're doing is we're working with the governors. One of the things is giving them options. We can build. We have the capability. We say build army engineers. What they're doing is contracting. They have the capability to bring in the expertise. They're not actually putting army engineers and build that. But what we're doing is offering those governors options. We can build, but it may take you this long to build. We can rescope these dormitories and hotels, or we can come with some other options. A lot of these situations, like large open tents aren't really the best place to put people with infectious diseases all together. So we're working through some options and giving them some options they can work with.

- Reporter: Is there an update on what, can you say when it's gonna be soon at full operations?

- Brig. Gen. Talley: Yes, we've had it gradually come back after the shutdown. The CDC has revisited USAMRIID two times, each time allowing more of the laboratory science to be allowed. Under the regulatory requirements of the CDC it's come back much faster than anticipated. COVID-19 is not considered a bioselect agent. So it's not under the same restrictions. In fact, when it was known that USAMRIID would be involved, our first phone call went to the CDC, they assured me though we absolutely need USAMRIID's help on this, like they had with other responses. It doesn't fall under the same category. The same restrictions do not apply. But with respect to the other types of work, they were released or actually allowed to conduct a second wave, if you will, of experimentation, which brings us up to about the BSL3-type of capability. That's continuing to be a gradual process back to full operation capability, if you will. But again, with the COVID-19 efforts, we're allowed to go full speed, if you will, with full operational capabilities.

- Reporter: Overseas, we heard the case about what's going on at Fort Bliss and some other bases where they're being quarantined. Obviously, we have these social distancing measures in place, but it doesn't sound like they were being implemented fully when they're returning. So if you could (fades out).

- Sgt. Maj. Grinston: First of all, we have the greatest soldiers in the world. They're very disciplined. But we absolutely have to learn, just like the rest of the society has to learn, that we're gonna have to change our habits. What we've done in the past doesn't work for what we're gonna do for this particular case. So I think the expectations were a little different when they redeployed in the past and what they're doing now. They're doing great. The senior admission commander is gonna address the issues that we had. But this is something we all have to learn how to live with. This is how we have to learn we gotta be socially distant from each other. We're just not used to that. We're not careful with that. Every time we get this, we're gonna learn. That's what's great about our army. We talk, we're constantly communicating, globally in an instant. We have the resources, so we can talk all the way across the globe. Today, this is what I learned. That didn't go so well. We're gonna improve on it. We're gonna improve everyday. Our soldiers are disciplined. The leaders are great. We have a ways to learn on this on how we bring people back and how we interact with each other, and we're gonna get better everyday. The soldiers are gonna understand. We're gonna protect the force. We have to protect not only the soldiers, we gotta protect the American people. So we're gonna learn from this, and I think we're doing great in this.