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Elmhurst Medical Center staff thank Sailors for their response during the pandemic at a farewell ceremony in New York City, June 3. 

The coronavirus has shined a light onto the capabilities of the military health care system, and medics are responding, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs said.

Thomas McCaffery recently told the Defense Writers Group that he spends most of his time on the Military Health System’s response to COVID-19.

Not surprising, as he ensures the health of the force and that forces are capable and ready, if called on to deploy.

McCaffery, who came to the job in 2017 from time in the private sector and at health care systems, was struck by the short-term nature of the system when he first came on board. “One of the things that I found really interesting, and somewhat challenging, was the fact that, in the military … there is continual change in leadership levels,” he said.

He said he was struck that leadership positions turn over every two or three years, very different from his time in the civilian sector. “I was like, ‘Wow, now that’s a challenging dynamic,’” he said.

This works against long-term issues, but there’s a flip side, he noted. “That is, our uniform leaders and our civilians are very, very good at adapting to change, and it’s not something unique; they’re used to it,” he said. “It’s part of the culture, part of their DNA. The health system leadership pivoted easily when the pandemic hit,” he added.

The deployment of hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles; and medical units to Seattle, Denver and Dallas; and sharing medical equipment with civilian hospitals are just some of the issues to which the system had to adjust, McCaffery said.

When U.S. medical forces are deployed, they usually are going overseas or perhaps to domestic areas affected by emergencies, like hurricanes, he said, and they deal with trauma rather than disease. “This was a very different enemy,” McCaffery said. “As we saw in New York City, we had several hundred

of our uniformed medical providers actually helping staff civilian hospitals.”

Another aspect is research, he said, and the Military Health System has been able to deal with the pandemic. “I kind of consider myself fairly educated on healthcare, but it wasn’t until I got here (that I began) to realize the enormous role that the Military Health System plays in medical research and development,” he said.

The military has a long-standing research arm that developed treatments for malaria, yellow fever and more, to protect Service members deployed around the world, McCaffery said. “Obviously, we do research on vaccines, medical countermeasures for military purposes, keeping our troops safe. But we were very quick to pivot and leverage that kind of research that has already been going on for our military purposes, to … vaccine research and development for COVID therapeutics for treatment.”