U.S. Army Spc. Daniel Fields, assigned to the 9th Hospital Center, takes a patient's vital signs inside of an ambulance at the Javits New York Medical Station on March 31, 2020.

U.S. Army Spc. Daniel Fields, assigned to the 9th Hospital Center, takes a patient's vital signs inside of an ambulance at the Javits New York Medical Station on March 31, 2020. (Barry Riley/U.S. Navy)

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WASHINGTON — Medical support from the Defense Department to help battle the coronavirus pandemic will be expanded in three states to treat patients with the illness, a day after the captains of the Navy’s hospital ships reported receiving fewer than two dozen patients during the past week.

The Defense Department announced Friday that it had received a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide medical support to patients with the coronavirus at three federal medical stations: the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City; the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas.

The Pentagon also said it would soon add hundreds of additional medical professionals to its pandemic response. Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said the military would add 350 additional doctors and 500 nurses to aid in the coronavirus-related efforts. The military so far has deployed about 400 doctors and 1,000 nurses, he said.

The Javits center has soldiers from Fort Campbell’s 531st Hospital Center and Fort Hood’s 9th Hospital Center providing support, while the Texas and Louisiana locations are expecting medical personnel from the Navy who are based out of Jacksonville, Fla.

Previously, the Pentagon said they would not provide care to coronavirus patients, but only treat non-coronavirus patients in order to free up beds at local hospitals for people with the virus.

Now, military medical staff will treat coronavirus patients who are recovering from the virus and “low-acuity” patients such as people experiencing non-traumatic injuries and mild pain.

The increase in patient care comes a day after the captains of the USNS Mercy, in port in Los Angeles, and the USNS Comfort, in port in New York City, said in a Pentagon briefing that they had only received less than 20 patients between them since they started accepting patients. The Comfort had only started to take patients Wednesday and the Mercy has been accepting patients for almost a week. Each ship has the capacity to accept 1,000 adult patients.

Both captains said they were being referred non-coronavirus hospital patients by local health officials. The patients had to be screened, tested and found negative for the virus before being transferred aboard the ships.

The USNS Comfort will now screen patients for coronavirus at its pier instead of waiting for a negative test in order to help relieve New York City hospital backlogs, according to the Pentagon statement. The statement did not say whether the Mercy would also start screening patients for coronavirus.

The expanded support will allow local hospitals to treat more serious coronavirus patients, the Pentagon said, and they will work with local officials to implement the new details.

The changes to allow coronavirus patients in New York, Texas, and Louisiana comes with an increased risk of virus spread in the medical facilities at the convention centers as well as to staff and other patients.

“This decision was risk-informed and made to ensure that DoD can continue to provide these local communities the type of medical care they most need,” according to the statement. “Force health protection is a top priority and our medical professionals will have the required personal protective equipment needed for this mission.”

Hoffman on Friday did not rule out the Mercy and Comfort eventually accepting coronavirus patients. But he said a decision on that was “not imminent.”

Additionally, Hoffman announced the Pentagon would double the number of N95 respirator masks that it would provide the Department of Health and Human Services from its strategic stockpile to 10 million. The Pentagon announced March 17 that it would send 5 million masks to HHS. As of Thursday, the Pentagon had shipped about 2 million of the masks.

Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report. Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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