Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove'

Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove'
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Military personnel deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are not planning to assist with treatment of coronavirus patients barring a change in circumstances, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperBirx: 'I'm very concerned when people go out and don't maintain social distancing' Roundup: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 today 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE said Wednesday.

Thousands of members of the armed forces, including the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, have scattered across the country to provide assistance in the country's response to the virus. But Esper said the military will not be treating coronavirus patients unless "push comes to shove," asserting the Pentagon's resources are better used building hospitals and treating trauma patients to lighten the load on hospitals.

"We can take the load off of hospitals with regards to their trauma patients, thereby freeing up rooms and other doctors ... who deal with infectious disease, to treat those type of patients," Esper said at a White House coronavirus press briefing in response to a question from The Hill.

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"I think it’s the best use of our resources," he added. "But again, if push comes to shove, we’re prepared to do what we have to to assist the American people."

The Army Corps of Engineers has assisted with construction of additional hospital beds and treatment space in New York City, Seattle and California, which are dealing with sizable outbreaks of coronavirus patients. The Pentagon has also deployed Naval hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles to provide additional hospital bed capacity for non-coronavirus patients.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE said Wednesday that he is considering building two new Naval hospital ships or renovating another ship for the same purpose, citing the positive impact of the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy.

"We’re looking at doing two additional brand new hospital ships," he said. "Because these ships have really struck a blow, a very positive blow."

Constructing new ships would likely take a significant period of time, making it unlikely it would be ready to assist when the country hits its peak number of coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.

The U.S. has more than 213,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and more than 4,700 Americans have died from the virus. Hundreds of military members have been confirmed to have the virus.