TORONTO -- Canada's top soldier says the Canadian Armed Forces is taking "extraordinary" measures to ensure its members are healthy and able to deploy quickly should a province or territory request help to fight an invisible enemy: COVID-19.

The majority of members are at home, "protecting themselves and their families so that they're available for those operations," said Gen. Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, in a telephone interview Thursday. There is also an effort currently underway to temporarily give reservists full-time contracts so that they're immediately available.

"Typically … the crisis has to happen before we start to bring the reserves on. We're going to do it ahead of time here so we reduce our response times," Vance said.

Four Canadian warships deployed abroad are returning weeks ahead of schedule: HMCS Nanaimo and HMCS Whitehorse from the Caribbean, where they were helping stop the flow of illegal narcotics; and HMCS Glace Bay and Shawinigan, returning from West Africa.

Two other warships -- HMCS Regina and HMCS Brandon -- are currently off the West Coast, where they remain "isolated from infection" and ready to respond on short notice. On the East Coast, crews of the HMCS Ville de Quebec and HMCS Moncton are preparing to sequester at a hotel for 14 days before sending them out to sea, where they will wait, even though there is no indication the crews have been exposed.

Overall, fewer than 20 members of the CAF have been infected with COVID 19, Vance said.

"We are certainly posturing ourselves for larger operations," Vance said, but I gotta tell you: I honestly hope they don't come." However, Vance added that he expects the military will be called to assist in areas of the country that are especially difficult to access.

"I am uniquely concerned about Northern and isolated communities," he said. "The sheer ability to get into some of these communities matches our skill set...We do that for a living."

He also sees a role for the military in helping provinces and territories relieve "doctors, and nurses and technicians from 'other-than-COVID' issues." But that's "a pretty finite resource that we've got there."

Even though the Canadian Armed Forces is ramping up preparedness, Vance said he has not seen models showing potential death rates in Canada as a result of the pandemic.

"I see the same things that you report on TV about where the provinces are day to day," he said.

Unlike hospitals across the country grappling with a supply shortage, the military doesn't appear to be under the same constraints at this stage. So far, it has not been asked to share its supply of personal protective equipment or other medical supplies.

"We're like the 11th province. We have our own medical system," he said. "It's not designed to go out and go outside of the military, although we are positioning ourselves to be able to create capacity to be able to do that in this crisis.

"Should we start to have to operate, then we can protect our doctors and nurses and technicians and protect our troops."

Vance also urged Canadians to be patient and disciplined when it comes to physical distancing, hand washing and not touching your face.

"It's super critical because it's all about the capacity of the medical system."

"We don't want to be beyond that capacity because then we end up with situations like what's going on in New York City.

"And we don't want that."