Life During Coronavirus Wartime

A National Guard member hands out food to people in the New Rochelle “containment area.” Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Sunday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for President Trump to mobilize the military to fight the spread of the coronavirus and to help expand the medical system’s capacity to treat patients in the coming weeks.

“At this point, our best hope is to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment, and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities — like military bases or college dormitories — to serve as temporary medical centers,” Cuomo wrote. He added that with this build-out, existing hospital beds could be reserved for “acutely ill” patients suffering from other life-threatening diseases.

Cuomo is the not the first voice to call for federal disaster intervention — the National Guard has already been activate in six states, including in New Rochelle in New York — though his plea on Sunday may be the most significant of any of the public appeals to treat the coronavirus with a wartime mentality. “We’re going into a full crisis footing,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Saturday, the day before he announced the closing of New York City’s schools. “This is a wartime dynamic.” In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown also made the comparison while describing the challenges the state’s hospital system faces: “I would put this as a World War II–capacity daycare for our public-health workers because we’re going to need every single body we can get,” said Brown. In Boston, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital told NBC that “we need to think about this in almost a warlike stance.”

In a letter published on Sunday, Massachusetts senator Ed Markey called on the president to “order a wartime-like manufacturing mobilization” and to “use existing authorities under the Defense Production Act” to facilitate and support increased private production of personal protective equipment, medical supplies, and devices such as ventilators, and diagnostic testing supplies.” Enacted at the beginning of the Korean War, the act authorizes the president to require companies to sign contracts that would be necessary to defend the country.

Already in Italy, a wartime mentality has taken hold more solemnly in the country’s overwhelmed hospital system. Doctors have become so overrun by severe COVID-19 cases that the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation, and Intensive Care published guidelines for health workers similar to battlefield triage. “It may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care,” the document states, adding that “these criteria apply to all patients in intensive care, not just those infected with COVID-19.”

The likelihood that Governor Cuomo’s call will get through to the president is still low, considering comments he made on Sunday: In a press conference, Trump said that the pandemic is “something that we have total control over.” He was immediately followed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who had a different message: “The worst is yet ahead of us.”

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Life During Coronavirus Wartime