Hoping to better prepare the country for emergencies ranging from a pandemic to hurricanes, the U.S. government announced the expansion on Wednesday of the Public Health Corps, a little-known medical branch of the uniformed forces.
The Health and Human Services Department, which oversees the Corps, said it would try to increase the number of officers by 10 percent, to a total of 6,600.
"We are undertaking this transformation to ensure that this elite force is better-equipped to meet the public health needs and necessities of the future," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt told a news conference.
Made up of doctors, nurses, veterinarians and other public health professionals and headed by the Surgeon General, the Public Health Corps spreads its membership across a variety of agencies, including HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They treat patients, conduct research and are trained to respond quickly to emergencies.
"Our officers treat disease, ensure the safety of food and medicine, and restore health and hope in times of greatest need," Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona said.
More than 2,000 uniformed members helped in the response to Hurricane Katrina last year, for example, and were generally praised while the overall federal response was criticized.
"They set up and staffed field hospitals and emergency medical clinics, treated sick and injured evacuees, ensured hospital structures, food supplies and water supplies were safe, conducted disease surveillance and worked closely with local and state health authorities to address other immediate and long-term public health needs," HHS said in a statement.
"Increasing the number of Commissioned Corps officers and restructuring the deployment process will make us more agile and efficient while continuing to fulfill our daily mission," Carmona added.
Experts say the U.S. public health system is ill-prepared to deal with any big emergency, such as an influenza pandemic.