WASHINGTON -- As early as January, Defense Department officials were aware of the possibility of a medical crisis due to the coronavirus, and began then to issue guidance to be ready, Matthew P. Donovan, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness said.
"After consulting with Secretary Esper, by the end of January, I issued the department's first force health protection guidance addressing COVID-19 to protect our people," he said, speaking today during a virtual discussion with the Blue Star Families and the Association of Defense Communities.
Since that time the department has issued a total of 13 force health protection supplements to address issues impacting service members and their families. Along with maintaining the national security mission and supporting the whole-of-nation response to COVID-19, taking care of military personnel and their families have been a top priority for the department since the beginning of the pandemic, Donovan told families at the event.
He said in the face of the uncertainty the pandemic has brought, Defense Department policies that have empowered installation commanders with the authorities needed to make the best decisions for their commands based on local conditions.
"These adjustments help people impacted by travel restrictions, extended expiration dates of military and dependent ID cards and allowed service members to carry over up to 120 days of accrued leave into fiscal year 2023," he said.
To help military personnel and their families, the department also declared commissaries and other facilities "mission essential" during the pandemic to ensure they could stay open, Donovan said.
For medical care, he said, the Defense Health Agency and TRICARE expanded and incentivized telehealth services to ensure beneficiaries were better able to receive necessary care, he said.
"[We also] extended licensed providers greater flexibility to provide health care services in other states and waived co-pays and cost shares for in-network telehealth services," Donovan said.
To better support families during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to keep them abreast of support options, Donovan said, the department increased military community and family policy efforts.
"We launched a section on our Military OneSource website specifically dedicated to COVID-19, to ensure our military community received the latest and most accurate information," he said. "Just this month, we launched the My Military OneSource mobile application, which is available for download on smartphones and tablets to provide easier access to information, support and referrals."
Within military-operated schools across the department, he said, the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DODEA, early on responded to the transition of over 70,000 students and 14,000 faculty members to remote education environments. As part of that effort, he said, they also issued around 8,000 laptop computers to students and set up 250 internet hotspots to connect students to educational opportunities.
As part of the greater, whole-of-nation response to COVID-19, the military health system has also played a part in trying to stop the spread of the pandemic, he said.
"Our military health system also quickly responded by making significant investments to accelerate the research and development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics," Donovan said. Part of that is the Defense Department's partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services as part of Operation Warp Speed.
"All of us at the Department of Defense hold an unwavering commitment to caring for our warfighters and their families," Donovan said. "In personnel and readiness, we understand how much our people rely on the resources we provide. This is a no-fail mission for us."