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By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON, March 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. military is preparing to deploy field hospitals to New York and Seattle, the Pentagon said on Monday, as its top civilian and military leaders acknowledged for the first time that the coronavirus pandemic could impact military readiness.
U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the armed forces had been preparing administratively since Feb. 1 for the possibility of providing the U.S. government support in a pandemic-like scenario.
But the field hospitals -- to be established in the two U.S. cities hardest hit by the pandemic -- were the latest in a string of deployment announcements that show how the military has moved from planning to the execution of an expanding support role to the U.S. government's domestic coronavirus response effort.
This includes sending military hospital ships to Los Angeles and New York City and tasking the Army Corps of Engineers to convert hotels and dormitories into treatment facilities for sick patients. Tens of thousands of National Guard are eventually expected to be deployed nationwide.
Milley said the Pentagon had issued prepare-to-deploy orders to 10 expeditionary units that could set up field hospitals.
"What we want to do is make sure that the local communities take care of the coronavirus patient and we can handle the excess capacity that they won't have in terms of trauma ... and other more routine cases," Milley said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced more security restrictions at the Pentagon, just a day after the first coronavirus death of an employee at a Defense Department agency. Esper said he has not been tested for the coronavirus but has been having his temperature checked.
U.S. TROOPS HOSPITALIZED
Esper said 133 military personnel had been confirmed with the virus so far. Milley said 11 of those cases required hospitalization.
But as the number of infections climb and military exercises are canceled, Esper and Milley both acknowledged military readiness for a potential conflict or crisis could be impacted.
"Typical military planning, I'm going to assume worst case and that there will be some readiness impact to the military in some capacity," Milley said. "I'm just not at a place right now where I can give you an accurate description of what that's going to look like."
Esper predicted the coronavirus would have "more and more impact" on personnel.
"While it may have some impact on readiness, it will not affect our ability to conduct our national security missions," he said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)
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