March 18 (UPI) -- The Pentagon will make available up to 5 million respirator masks and other personal protective equipment as well as 2,000 deployable ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services to aid U.S. medical workers fighting to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, said U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Esper told reporters Tuesday that 1 million masks would be available immediately and that they will all be coming from the Department of Defense's strategic reserves.
News of the maks being made available came as U.S. President Mike Pence urged construction companies to donate their N95 respirator masks to local hospitals and to cancel their existing orders.
"Those industrial masks that they use on construction sites are perfectly acceptable for healthcare workers to be protected from a respiratory disease," Pence said Tuesday during a press briefing of the Coronavirus Task Force, which he leads.
Concerning the ventilators, Esper said they are not the same as those commonly used and require special training to operate, "but we are committed to supporting HHS' requirements in any way we can."
Esper added the number of ventilators will not be enough to meet the United States' projected need, calling on the private sector to fill in the gap.
"When you look at the numbers of people that are projected that may need ventilators, 2,000 doesn't put much of a dent into it," he said.
He also said the Pentagon has made available 14 certified coronavirus testing labs to test non-military personnel and will soon have two more available for this purpose.
The Pentagon is also considering deploying the National Guard and Reserves to assist states with planning, logistics and medical support, he said.
Esper said at least 18 states and over 1,500 Guardsmen have been activated during the COVID-19 health crisis, but if the National Guard is going to be deployed he wants governors to know how its members can be used as the Department of Defense "wants to be the last resort."
"We can come in, rather than being the first, and really help enable through the Guard and Reserve to play that role initially," he said.
On Tuesday, West Virginia announced its first COVID-19 patient, meaning all 50 states have now been infected with the virus. According to a live tally by Johns Hopkins University, the United States recorded more than 6,360 infections and more than 100 deaths due to the coronavirus.