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Changes needed in national disaster preparedness system

Mission not really of much use probably is not the slogan those in the military would choose for their genuinely superhuman efforts to help areas such as New York City that have been slammed hard by COVID-19. And in truth, the armed forces have done an excellent, life-saving job.

But some of what they did ?– or, rather, did not do — points up a need for improvement in the nation’s disaster preparedness planning.

On March 30, the Navy hospital ship USS Comfort steamed into New York harbor, bringing what virtually everyone thought were badly needed beds needed to care for COVID-19 patients. Meanwhile, the Army was setting up field hospitals in tents and at a convention center, for the same purpose.

But the Comfort has left New York and some of the field hospitals are being dismantled after caring for far fewer patients than had been projected.

So, were the missions unnecessary? Far from it. At the time they were mounted, it appeared the military’s help would be needed desperately, in view of what already had happened in New York.

Therein lies the problem. Through no fault of its own, the military arrived after the crush of COVID-19 cases had peaked.

Ditto for some medical supplies such as face masks provided by the federal government.

Our national disaster preparedness system simply was not ready for COVID-19. A federal stockpile of medical supplies, depleted during a prior, less deadly epidemic, had not been restocked. The military, with many national defense tasks on its plate, shifted fears quicklly — but not with the speed required to hit the coronavirus at its most fearsome levels.

Don’t blame the generals and admirals. Again, the armed forces were designed to fight our nation’s armies, navies and air forces, not to act as health care reserve troops.

The same cannot be said for those in charge of the national medical supplies stockpile. Clearly, there were policy failures regarding it.

There is much talk these days about what the “new normal” will look like. Clearly, one aspect of change needs to be a thorough re-examination of whether, when the next epidemic hits, our nation will be able to react more decisively.

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