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Joint Staff surgeon praises Americans stepping up to help COVID-19 victims

A military officer stands behind a dias and speaks.

Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon, discusses the Defense Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a Pentagon news conference, April 6, 2020.

A civilian and an airman stand at lecterns.

Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, and Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon, brief reporters at the Pentagon, April 6, 2020.

A group of doctors wearing medical gowns and masks stand together in a hospital.

Army Maj. Sean Shirley, assigned to the 9th Hospital Center, holds a meeting with his staff in the Javits New York Medical Station intensive care unit bay in New York City. April 4, 2020. The facility, which has been operational and caring for non-COVID-19 patients since March 30, began providing medical care for patients with the virus on April 3.

Two Air National Guardsmen sort medical supplies.

Louisiana Air National Guardsmen sort medical supplies at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, March 31, 2020, while supporting COVID-19 response efforts. Medical supplies were stored at the sports arena before being distributed to drive-thru community-based COVID-19 testing sites.

An airman performs lab testing

Air Force Airman 1st Class Michael San Jose, 60th Medical Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron lab technician, performs antibody titration at the David Grant USAF Medical Center laboratory at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., March 25, 2020. The lab, which supports Air Mobility Command, as well as the Pacific theater, is one of many services the medical center is providing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A soldier administers the COVID-19 test

Army Spc. Chris DiCarlo, right, a medic with the Massachusetts National Guard Medical Command, and a staff member of the Holyoke Soldiers Home, administers the COVID-19 test to a resident of the Soldiers Home in Holyoke, Mass., March 31, 2020. DiCarlo, who studies biology and health sciences at Westfield (Mass.) State University was activated to assist in the Commonwealth's fight against COVID-19.

Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, and Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon, hold a news conference at the Pentagon, April 6, 2020.

Any listing of personnel, equipment and facilities involved - as impressive as it might be - doesn't begin to explain what's at the heart of the Defense Department's effort to combat COVID-19, the Joint Staff surgeon said.

It's about people helping people, flattening the curve, and slowing the spread of the pandemic so hospitals have a bit more time to prepare for the total number of patients, Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs said during a Pentagon news conference yesterday.

And it's about saving lives, he added.

Friedrichs thanked the reservists who stepped forward when the call went out for volunteers and  mobilized on short notice.

"In fact, many of them are moving to New York as we speak," he said. "These are folks who identified that they could leave their communities and support the broader effort back in uniform."

New York City is the hotspot for COVID-19 in the United States. The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort is there. An Army field hospital is operating out of the Javits Convention Center. These are there to supplement the hospitals of the city and support the medical teams.

"We would all be very happy if there's not a surge of patients that overwhelm the New York hospitals," Friedrichs said. "But the people of New York need to know that if the hospitals are full, we're there, and we will deliver great care to them."

The reservists that DOD is sending to New York are going to augment the hospitals so that the hospitals can use their beds and their intensive care units primarily for COVID-19 patients, the general noted. 

The COVID-19 pandemic requires all people to do their parts, the doctor said. "It starts with each of us as individuals. We have got to share the responsibility for protecting not only our families, but protecting our communities," he said. "In the military, we do that every day. This is now part of what we as a nation have to do for each other."

Friedrichs said the entire country is stressed by this dangerous outbreak, and medics are, too. "Is it what we signed up for when we became doctors or nurses or pharmacists? Yeah, we knew we were going to take care of sick people," the doctor said.

"Part of our commitment in the Department of Defense is to ensure that our medics have the protective equipment that they need so they can deliver the care that their patients need," Friedrichs said. "That doesn't reduce the stress much, but that is part of that shared commitment going forward there." 

Today, the big hotspot is New York, but it could be another community next week, he noted. The federal effort is a balance of risk, he explained - anticipating the needs and the timing of where the next hot spot will be while concentrating efforts on the current one.

"Right now, the biggest threat is in New York City. And so we are accepting risk in other communities by moving medics who normally work in other communities up to New York to help out those folks who are dealing with a really tough time right now," Friedrichs said. "We anticipate as this continues to evolve, that we're going to adjust where we are and who we're taking care of based on the demands of each community [and] what they need at that moment in time."

The cry of "flatten the curve" as an important measure in slowing the spread of the virus so that hospitals will have more time to prepare is familiar to most Americans. Now, more than ever, the military medics have a pivotal role to play, the Joint Staff surgeon said.

"Part of what we're trying to do as military medics is to help communities so that they have enough capacity that if someone needs care, they can get it until we can get beyond that peak in that particular community," Friedrichs said. "I think so far we've been able to do that."

A total of 700 medics volunteered to aid the effort. "These are men and women who stepped up when we asked for volunteers and said that they were willing to leave their communities," the general said. "I don't have a breakdown for all 700 of them as far as where they're coming from. We have 125 Air Force reservists who are going to New York, we have 200 Navy reservists, who are also going to New York." 

"Then we've got a variety of other teams, reserve teams, that are going to New Jersey and to Connecticut," he continued. "The American people are recognizing this is not business as usual, and people are stepping up to help each other out. And that is exactly what you're seeing with these reservists. My hat's off to them because they have chosen to leave their homes and come forward when we asked for volunteers to help out. So where do they come from? They come from America. This is what we're doing. We're each stepping forward to help each other out."

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