Former Vice President Joe Biden said he would mobilize military forces “now” to help respond to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he would consider doing the same during the 11th debate among Democratic presidential candidates held Sunday.
The statements come just days after President Donald Trump declared the virus a national emergency, but has yet to detail how any military resources might be deployed around the country to help with medical treatment and logistics.
More than 3,200 people have been diagnosed with the illness and more than 60 deaths blamed on it, all in just the last few weeks. Almost 6,500 worldwide have died.
In less than 10 days, most major public schools systems across America have shut down in an effort to limit the pandemic, and numerous states have moved to close down any large gatherings at entertainment venues, restaurants and places of worship.
But in his comments at the debate — held in Washington, D.C., without an audience — Biden said that more needs to be done, and the U.S. military can help.
“They have the capacity to provide this surge help that hospitals need, and is needed across the nation,” he said.
“They've done it. They have the capacity to build 500-bed hospitals that are completely safe and secure, and provide the help to get it done. It is a national emergency. I would call out the military.”
Sanders was less direct in his answer, saying he would “use all of the tools that make sense” and “if that means using the national guard, that’s something that has to be done.”
But he focused more of his answers on economic support for small businesses and workers impacted by the coronavirus closings.
About 400 National Guard personnel have been activated across six states so far to support operations to stem the spread the virus.
Earlier in the day, in a press conference on the federal response to the virus, Trump said the national response so far has been fast-moving and comprehensive. He did not detail any new military missions related to the effort.
“We're learning from watching other countries,” the president said. “There's a very contagious, a very contagious virus. It's incredible. But it's something we have tremendous control of.”
Trump over the weekend was tested for infection after several other world leaders he was recently in contact with confirmed they have contracted the coronavirus. White House officials said those tests were negative, and the president remains in good health.
Like Trump, both candidates in Sunday’s debate are in their late 70s, an age group considered high-risk for the spreading illness. Asked what personal precautions he is taking due to the health threat, Sanders said his entire staff is working from home, and all campaign rallies are suspended for now.
“And I’m using a lot of soap and hand sanitizers,” he added.
Biden said his campaign has taken the same steps. “We’re not going into crowds. We’re talking all the precautions everyone should be taking.”
The former vice president has a lead in the Democratic primary delegate count and has picked up numerous high-profile endorsements in the last few weeks. But Sanders has told supporters that he is not considering leaving the race yet, saying too many states have yet to vote and too many important issues need to be highlighted.
Members of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force are scheduled to hold another press briefing Monday morning, updating the country on the latest prevention work.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.