GOP senator presses Pentagon on protecting service members from coronavirus

GOP senator presses Pentagon on protecting service members from coronavirus
© Greg Nash

A top Senate Armed Services Committee Republican on Friday pressed the Pentagon on how it will protect members of the military and their families from the coronavirus.

“I have questions about the current status of the [Defense Department] response and infection prevention efforts,” Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisCampaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus Senate leaving DC until April 20 after coronavirus stimulus vote Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads MORE (R-N.C.) wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperDefense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis An insecure America and an assertive China Overnight Defense: Pentagon grapples with coronavirus outbreak | Aircraft carrier docks in Guam after more sailors test positive | Army hospitals to reach NY on Friday MORE.

“This global outbreak is concerning and presents an enduring and uncertain threat. The anxieties and concerns I am hearing from our service members and their families are justified,” he continued.

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The Trump administration has scrambled to address the growing threat of a COVID-19 pandemic as the illness continues to spread across the globe.

As of this week, the virus was found in 43 countries outside of China, where it originated, and has infected more than 80,000 people — including at least 15 U.S. citizens. 

A 23-year-old service member stationed in South Korea was the first military personnel to contract the coronavirus.

To contain possibly spreading the virus within the ranks, the Pentagon earlier this week canceled a joint exercise with South Korea; ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days to essentially self-quarantine; and restricted non-essential travel for service members, Department of Defense (DOD) civilians and contractors to South Korea as well as to areas in the Middle East.

DOD has also provided housing assistance for overseas travelers flying from China and other Asian countries who need to be quarantined. 

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Tillis in his letter asked Esper about the existing risks of infection to military personnel, including what the Pentagon is doing to assess current and future danger, educating service members on preventative measures and protocols and whether DOD has plans and the needed medical supplies and personnel to treat widespread infection.

He also asks about what the Pentagon is doing to mitigate risks of infection, including how it will prevent the spread of the virus to U.S. bases and military personnel stationed abroad and whether there are any screening measures in place to ensure civilian employees and returning service members would not spread the disease upon returning stateside.

“I expect your leadership in reassuring our service members, their families, and the American public on the steps being taken to reduce risk of infection among our DOD personnel and their families,” Tillis writes.