Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Taryn Armington and Sonar Technician (Surface) Seaman Darian Joseph prepare to cast off mooring
The USNS Mercy, a Navy hospital ship, is seen docked at Naval Base San Diego, March 18, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Key medical staff for the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort hospital ships have reported for duty to get the ships ready to deploy to areas overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, said the military officer in charge of putting the teams together.

The Mercy’s destination port has not yet been determined, but U.S. Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon that the goal is to have the ship sail out of San Diego Harbor next week.

The Comfort is undergoing maintenance in Norfolk, Virginia, and will deploy to New York Harbor in the coming weeks.  

FILE -- Patients wait under a tarp to see a doctor from the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort anchored off Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Nov. 8, 2019.

Both ships are preparing for a 1,000-bed mission, the largest mission set these ships can accommodate, Gillingham said.

The key medical professionals who will staff the Mercy and the Comfort and run the medical facilities onboard were screened before boarding the ships, which will be used for triage care.

The hospital ships and other military assets, such as field hospitals, can free up medical professionals and beds in local hospitals working to isolate and treat highly contagious coronavirus patients, but they are not designed to treat infectious disease patients themselves, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other officials said.

“They don’t have necessarily the space, the segregated spaces, you need to deal with infectious diseases,” Esper told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley has placed some active duty units on alert to potentially deploy and build field hospitals across the country, Joint Staff Surgeon General Paul Friedrichs said Wednesday.

FILE -- U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort is seen during its mission in the port of Paita, northern Peru, Nov. 5, 2018.

The U.S. Air Force is flying coronavirus testing supplies to high-need areas, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein said.

The U.S. National Guard, which is often called to help with natural disasters, reported that more than 2,000 National Guardsmen in 27 states were responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The number of guardsmen activated for this crisis is expected to double by the end of the week, National Guard Bureau Chief General Joseph Lengyel said.

“With COVID-19, it's like we have 54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory and the District of Columbia,” Lengyel said.

The Defense Department has 15 labs with the capacity to conduct 9,096 COVID-19 tests daily. To date the labs have tested about 1,600 patients.

As of early Thursday, 81 coronavirus cases around the globe were related to the U.S. military — 51 service members, nine civilians, 10 dependents and 11 contractors — the Pentagon said.

Special Section