First, it was a smaller hospital with fewer than 200 beds in Farmington, New Mexico, where the high desert borders the Navajo Nation. Then, it was a massive university hospital in bustling Salt Lake City, Utah, with about 800 staffed beds.
The devastating effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on life-saving care, the well-being of front-line workers and health systems as a whole could be felt in both places, said US Navy Lt. James Kirlin, a registered nurse who has been deployed to help support them during the pandemic.
Since the early days of the health crisis – when there was no vaccine against Covid-19 and some hospitals ran out of health care workers – military medical personnel have been deployed to assist overwhelmed medical facilities across the United States.
Now – with more than 65% of the US population fully vaccinated and Covid-19 hospitalizations dropping near their lowest point ever – the final Department of Defense military medical team responding to the Covid-19 crisis ends its clinical mission Tuesday.
“It’s hugely momentous, and I think this has been the largest domestic deployment of federal medical personnel in our history,” said Natalie Quillian, the White House’s deputy coordinator of the Covid-19 response.
Kirlin’s team, about 25 personnel, was deployed to Salt Lake City on March 5 to support the University of Utah Hospital’s staff and patients. The hospital is planning a special “clap out” for the team members on Wednesday.
This week will mark the first time since 2020 that no military medical personnel remain deployed on a Covid-19 clinical mission. In that time, nearly 5,000 federal personnel have been deployed across 49 states and territories to help, according to the White House.
These far-reaching medical deployments were the first of their kind in response to a public health emergency, according to Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesperson for US Army North.
“We’ve seen it for other responses – like hurricanes, like wildfires – but not for a public health emergency, not for a pandemic,” O’Donnell said. “It’s unique in that sense. Not unique in the fact that we’ve never worked in support of a lead federal agency or have never provided support in the homeland but unique in the sense that it’s a public health emergency of this size and scale.”
Hospital patients and visitors alike probably assumed that Kirlin, 38, and his fellow military personnel were part of the usual hospital staff. In emergency rooms, they cared for serious cases – pediatric car crash victims and patients overdue for surgery – just like any other staffers would.
“I am literally almost indiscernible from any of the other staff at these facilities. I work the exact same shifts,” Kirlin said Monday night, just hours before starting his 12-hour shift – from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. – at the University of Utah Hospital.
“Being part of this team that’s remaining in the fight to help our country battle this problem that we’ve been facing the last few years, for me, it’s been a very rewarding experience.”
‘We stand ready’
The first military medical personnel to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in New York City in spring 2020. The US military set up temporary medical centers to treat people ill with the coronavirus.
“As things progressed, as we coordinated with the lead federal agency, local medical care providers and administrators as well as other partners, we realized that perhaps the alternate care centers aren’t the way to go,” O’Donnell said. “We realized probably the best way that we can support is integrating within the hospitals.”
As the pandemic grew, medical personnel from military treatment facilities across the country were deployed to states to support hospitals that were overwhelmed with patients and short on staff.
“The support teams were placed after surge levels reached peak in communities of highest burden – so they really were not a precursor of a public health emergency as much as another indicator that community burden was at a high level in the health care settings,” Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, wrote in an email Monday.
Then, with the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, military medical personnel were deployed to help with administering shots and other pandemic response efforts.
President Biden “made a decision, during the transition, once he got into office, to deploy the military to help run some of our mass vaccination sites that were really critical for those first 100 days in getting shots into arms,” Quillian said. “It was the first time we had deployed them for a mission like this domestically.”
In addition to vaccinations, military members were deployed nationwide to help with responses in hard-hit communities during the Delta and Omicron surges.