Ammar Campa-Najjar aboard an aircraft carrier
Ammar Campa-Najjar listens as a Navy crewman describes the capabilities of an aircraft carrier.

Make no mistake: We are at war with the coronavirus. In the wake of this public health crisis, people are scared, unsure and know the worst is yet to come.

Working parents are sheltering in place worrying about their child’s next meal and their own job security. Small businesses that have been forced to shut down are struggling to meet overhead costs and keep employees on payroll.

Fortunately, Congress is working on a “families-first” economic relief package to alleviate the financial pain caused by the global pandemic. The bad news is the coronavirus is careening our economy toward another recession, has claimed over a hundred American lives, and is on a dangerous collision course with our healthcare system.

America has always prevailed in the face of adversity. In order to meet this moment, we must marshal the strength of our military, the ingenuity of our industries, and the will of the American people to defeat the coronavirus.

To move forward, we need to evaluate how we got here in the first place. The reality is, the coronavirus has outpaced us at every turn since the beginning.

We didn’t declare the China travel ban until Jan. 31, a whole month after the first global coronavirus case was confirmed and a full ten days after the first U.S. case was reported in Washington State on Jan. 21.

We didn’t introduce social distancing guidelines until after the first case of community spread among people who did not contract the virus from outside the country. And we didn’t lift regulations allowing local governments to do their own testing and approving commercial test kits until weeks after CDC kits were found to be malfunctioning.

These decisions would have been more effective weeks earlier. Now, schools, restaurants and other public spaces are shutting down and people are being told to stay home. We’ve already moved on from the shortage of test kits by asking people to assume they have the virus, by essentially asking everyone to self-quarantine and to only go to the hospital if they have severe symptoms.

Today, we’re in the fourth phase of the outbreak, trying to slow the pace — also known as “flattening the curve” — of infection to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. If the rate of sick people outnumbers capacity, healthcare providers will have no choice but to ration resources, turn patients away, and begin assessing patient needs against their likelihood of survival.

We need to outpace this next phase of the outbreak and get ahead of it before it happens. That means doing two things: Continuing social distancing to slow the speed of the infection, and rapidly surging the capacity of our healthcare system. We have to simultaneously flatten the curve and supercharge our capability. We can’t wait and respond; we have to prepare and execute this time.

The only way to quickly build hospitals is by deploying the military, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers. We’re at war with coronavirus, so it is time to send in the military. Our healthcare system’s ability to provide care depends on our ability to prevent a shortage of three major components: Space, supplies and staff.

  • Space: The military can increase our healthcare capacity in many ways, including using Navy medical ships to relieve hospital strain by taking non-infectious cases; reopening long closed hospitals; retrofitting bases, vacant hotels, warehouses and campuses; and converting military hospital beds and tents into temporary medical facilities.
  • Supplies: Some hospital professionals have reported not having enough gloves and other equipment. Additionally, the CDC is loosening its guidance due to the shortage of respirator masks, permitting medical staff to use the same equipment to treat multiple patients.

Government can’t overcome the shortage alone. What can be done? During World War II, the Ford Motor Company was able to build a combat plane every hour. We need to repurpose factories to mass-produce sanitizers, ventilators, masks, gloves, and other needed protective gear and medical equipment.

For example, right now, perfume companies are switching to making hand sanitizers. The same is happening with masks and commercial test kits. We need to encourage more companies to temporarily repurpose with the guarantee that the federal government will buy these supplies.

  • Staff: While we can rapidly produce supplies, we can’t rapidly produce qualified staff— they’re irreplaceable and indispensable. That’s why we need to equip doctors and nurses with supplies as soon as they’re available to protect them from infection. We need to protect our healthcare professionals to end the pandemic.

In addition to equipping staff, we now have to expand their capacity by temporarily changing their operating structure. For example, transforming ICU units (one nurse per patient) into sub-ICU units with more practical nurse-patient ratios. We also need to temporarily cut regulations and allow any experienced, willing healthcare professional to care for patients.

The window for preventing the worst is narrow, but there’s still time to pin this virus to the mat if we can find our footing and finally get one step ahead of the outbreak. Let’s not wait and see if we’ve flattened the curve, let’s mobilize the strongest military on earth to bolster our healthcare system, contain the virus, and win this war.

Ammar Campa-Najjar is a candidate for Congress in the 50th District in east San Diego County.