ARLINGTON, Va. -- The head of U.S. Northern Command’s land forces spoke Tuesday of the lessons learned from its ongoing battle against COVID-19, as the command prepares to send more troops to hotspots in Texas and California.
At the height of its response in April, the command had more than 9,000 service members deployed across the country and has supported over 130 Federal Emergency Management Agency missions throughout it.
About one-third of those troops were medical providers who helped reduce the burden on civilian hospitals.
“It was the largest response we have commanded and controlled,” said Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, who is also the commander of U.S. Army North.
Emergency responses normally have one or two FEMA regions activated, which cover about 10 states. The response to COVID-19, however, has resulted in all 10 regions being activated, she added.
With cases rising in Texas and California, the command has now assigned about 740 military medical and support personnel to support FEMA missions in both states. The majority will assist hospitals in Texas such as in San Antonio, Houston and elsewhere, the general said.
“That was a game-changer for us,” she said of augmenting civilian hospitals. “Let’s go in where the infrastructure is [and] help those staffs out. That was really a lesson learned and a best practice.”
Since its response began in late January, the command has created Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces, which comprise 85 medical personnel.
Some of the specialized units earlier deployed to hospitals in New York City, the nation’s former epicenter for the virus where they helped a beleaguered staff.
The task forces and other military efforts became such a welcomed sight in the Big Apple that the mayor said they were like the cavalry, Richardson said.
“They had just about lost all hope and when our folks came [in to support] and they were integrated in the hospitals, they were cheered [on],” she said. “It was just really, really incredible.”
The command, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, also helped transform the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into an alternate care facility that treated almost 1,100 patients, many of whom had the virus.
Army engineers then used lessons learned from that operation to build several other care facilities out of empty event centers around the country.
The command helped create strict donning and doffing procedures for personal protective equipment, or PPE. The process, she said, is similar to a chemical or biological decontamination and it later became the standard for all Defense Department personnel.
“It is still key to our success in keeping our people healthy,” she said.
As hurricane season approaches, where there is normally a need for high-water vehicles, the general said that troops will also have high-water PPE to protect them as they rescue people.
“We already ordered that and have it on hand [to make] sure our forces will have enough as they go around saving lives,” she said.
The general credited previous training in helping U.S. Army North, which holds about 60 exercises per year, be ready for the current operation.
In October, ARNORTH participated in Vigilant Shield, an annual homeland defense exercise that involves NORTHCOM, U.S. government agencies, and the Canadian Joint Operations Command.
“It was pretty eye opening,” she said. “So when COVID started blossoming out, it wasn’t as intimidating.
“It’s always good to get a harder situation or scenario in an exercise, so that when the real world happens, it’s easier. That’s really what we try to strive for.”
ARNORTH also added 250 personnel to temporarily uplift its Joint Force Land Component Command. Those included members of warfighting and logistics teams from the Army Combined Arms Center, she said, as well as five general officers who augmented her staff.
While the peak of the operation has passed, Richardson said the command remains poised to step up and help should the need arise, or should any natural disaster occur.
“At Army North, our motto is ‘Strength of the Nation’ and we are working nonstop, day and night, to support our fellow Americans,” she said.