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The US could see more deaths than WWII. It's time to deploy the military to hospitals | Nick Obradovich, Robyn Migliorini and Renee C Wurth | Opinion


We are at war against the coronavirus. If we don’t act rapidly, we’re approaching a US death toll larger than that of the two world wars combined. To fight an invisible army, we need to be creative. We must deploy the full might of the US military – in an unconventional way.

Unlike most wars, this time the frontlines are staffed by our nation’s healthcare workers. And while they’re fighting valiantly so far, the battle to flatten the curve is leaving them overrun.

We are not adequately armed. We need beds. We need hospitals. We need ventilators. But the usefulness of those additions hinges on a critical group: our healthcare workers. The coronavirus is likely to present a year-long war of attrition. While our medical professionals are putting out heroic efforts, no one can work around the clock indefinitely. Doctors, nurses, technicians, support staff and even hospital janitors are highly vulnerable to this virus and will become exhausted and sick right when they’re needed most.

Fortunately, we’re not the first to face the failure of our healthcare system at the hands of this virus. Wuhan, China, provides the best example of an aggressive, coordinated, and effective response to successfully stymie the spread of the virus once it has infected tens of thousands. We should learn from the Wuhan experience.

Realizing the imminent collapse of their medical resources in Wuhan, the Chinese government shuttled thousands of domestic and military medical staff from around the country to assist. They also retrained locals – including receptionists and highway workers – to serve in medical assistant roles. China accomplished this because they could immediately command the services of tens of thousands of workers.

In the US, we do not have this same set of options. We don’t have a centralized economy. Most of our major cities will have their hospital systems overwhelmed simultaneously. The frontline will be everywhere. And there will be few doctors to spare.

So, what should we do?

To start, we should add medical students and retired doctors to the frontlines. But these groups will fill only a small fraction of the added medical demand as coronavirus cases peak. We must rapidly train and deploy a much larger workforce.

Let’s use one of America’s most valuable national assets – our top-tier military – to dramatically increase our healthcare capacity. They are a dynamic force uniquely positioned to fight this virus, despite it falling outside their traditional scope. Members are trained to handle acute stress, are adaptable and are rapidly deployable. They’re used to being under centralized command and are mentally prepared to be away from their families to protect our country.

We should rapidly reassign any military doctors and paramedics that can be spared to serve domestic needs. Other service members who need specialized skill training can be sent to coronavirus treatment-and-control bootcamps, where they can be trained to aid nurses, respiratory therapists and maintenance technicians.

Our trained service members can be deployed wherever the demand is greatest. They can monitor patients and take vitals. They can staff triage checkpoints at hospital entrances. And they can help manage equipment inventory and disinfection procedures. Further, military pilots and transportation specialists can increase the capacity of our air and ground ambulance services.

Serving on the frontlines always involves substantial risk. But our service members have an advantage in the fight against coronavirus: they’re young and fit. And as China’s CDC reports, young and healthy individuals are least likely to require hospital resources if infected. Each role that a young service member can fill for a medical retiree is potentially a life saved.

There may be objections to our proposal on various putative logistical grounds. But, frankly, if Wuhan can retrain and deploy its highway workers, we can and most certainly must deploy a portion of our large, well-funded military. Now is not the time for red tape nor red herrings. While some might be concerned about such a proposal undermining our ability to fight abroad, if we don’t take extreme measures to fight coronavirus now, our nation will be in a markedly worse position to defend against foreign threats.

This is an unprecedented crisis, and we need unprecedented adaptability to save lives. We don’t need to militarize our hospitals. But our hospitals will need help from our military. Let’s get our service members prepared. And let’s get them on the frontlines.

When our men and women enlist into the US military, they do it with the most admirable and courageous goals: to serve and protect their fellow Americans and to keep our country strong. If we don’t deploy them now, we may very well see one of the largest defeats our nation has ever suffered.

  • Nick Obradovich is a PhD political and data scientist who trained at UCSD, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the MIT Media Lab. He is currently senior research scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Human Development in the Center for Humans & Machines. Robyn Migliorini is a PhD neuropsychologist who trained at SDSU/UCSD and Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General hospital and has served America’s veterans at multiple Veterans Affairs hospitals. Renee C Wurth is a PhD population health scientist who trained at Northeastern and the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University

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