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Esper: Pentagon ready for any new wave of coronavirus

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks by video teleconference from U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Thursday, May 7, 2020, with military medical specialists at civilian hospitals in New York and Connecticut. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks by video teleconference from U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Thursday, May 7, 2020, with military medical specialists at civilian hospitals in New York and Connecticut. (AP Photo/Robert Burns) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Venturing beyond Washington for the first time since March, Defense Secretary Mark Esper got updated Thursday on the military’s coronavirus battle plan and declared the Pentagon ready for any new wave of infections.

“We are preparing for a second wave and maybe more,” said Esper, who took a variety of health precautions during his visit to U.S. Northern Command headquarters, including wearing a mask when social distancing wasn't possible. “We don’t know what the trajectory of this virus will be.”

He added, ”We are preparing for the long haul.”

Esper’s visit comes as he faces criticism from some Senate Democrats who say the Pentagon approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic has been slow and disjointed.

And it reflects Trump’s push for a reopening of the country and demonstrations of the administration’s shift from crisis management to rebooting a battered economy. Trump ended his isolation in the White House with a trip to Arizona on Tuesday to visit a face mask factory, and Vice President Mike Pence has made several recent trips.

Esper met at Northern Command with its leader, Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, and participated in a “virtual battlefield circulation” — speaking via video conference with deployed military personnel working in civilian hospitals in New York and Connecticut.

O’Shaughnessy is the most senior commander managing the far-flung military contributions to civilian agencies fighting the pandemic.

Esper offered high praise for the work of the thousands of active-duty medical specialists who pitched it at overloaded civilian hospitals.

“In my view it has been flawless,” he said during the video chat. “You guys made a great difference.”

Israel Rocha, chief executive of New York’s Elmhurst hospital, told Esper that military health care professionals who helped out were invaluable and their arrival was greatly appreciated.

“It was a turning point,” Rocha said.

“It literally was the cavalry arriving,” Esper said.

The praise was in contrast to criticism from Congress.

A week ago, 10 Senate Democrats, including former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, complained that he has taken a slow and disjointed approach to the coronavirus problem. In a letter to Esper, they said he may have put politics ahead of service members’ health and that he failed to issue coherent guidance to military commanders. They demanded answers by next week to a range of questions about virus testing and steps to mitigate the virus’s spread.

Esper said Tuesday he was disappointed by the letter, asserting that it contained statements that were false or misleading. He said he has spoken to governors of the states represented by the senators who signed the letter, and all thanked him and praised the Pentagon’s performance.

Esper has regularly asserted that the Pentagon has been “ahead of the curve” in dealing with the outbreak, starting with his decision to begin implementing a pandemic plan on Feb. 1. Support to civilian authorities has been just one aspect of the Pentagon’s response. It also has scaled back training, reduced face-to-face recruiting and largely stopped deploying new forces abroad.

These and other measures aimed at protecting the health of the force have had degrees of success, despite major setbacks such as a virus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt that has sidelined the ship on Guam for weeks, creating turmoil among Navy leadership and taken the life of one sailor.

The visit to Northern Command provided Esper a first step toward a slice of normalcy, but it also offered a look at how carefully he is limiting his exposure to the virus threat as he interacts with the military he oversees.

No one lined up for the customary plane-side greeting when Esper arrived. And there were head nods and elbow bumps, no hand shakes or shoulder slaps. His travel party was smaller than usual and they were all equipped with face coverings. The only journalist was an Associated Press reporter.

During meetings, tablet computers provided for Esper’s use were handled with surgical gloves. And smiles were hidden and voices muffled behind masks as all were careful to keep their distance.

The sessions also made clear the active-duty military's gradually declining roles in the pandemic response.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort returned to its home port at Norfolk, Virginia, on Saturday after 31 days in New York harbor. A second Navy hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, will soon depart Los Angeles, where it has been since late March.

Military medical specialists have played a key role in hospitals in hard-hit New York City and elsewhere, but their numbers are declining. A little over a week ago, 4,400 were working in civilian medical facilities across the nation. That number had shrunk to 2,600 on Wednesday.

Also, military expeditionary medical facilities that were set up in Texas and Louisiana are being returned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida this week.

Still, more than 46,000 National Guard members remain on active-duty, under state governors' control, to provide assistance.

Even as he ventures out to visit commanders and troops after weeks cooped up in the Pentagon, Esper has stressed that the military cannot expect to resume business as usual any time soon. He hopes to ease military travel and training restrictions by summer, but such steps will be gradual.

“I think that we will be in a new type of normal for a period of time, measured in months at least, and we’re going to take it one step at a time to make sure we do everything possible to protect our people,” he said Tuesday.