Pentagon races to counter coronavirus threat on military forces

Pentagon races to counter coronavirus threat on military forces
© Greg Nash

The Pentagon is taking care to prevent a slip in national security and readiness following the steady global spread of the coronavirus that has the Department of Defense (DOD) holding off on a military exercise, quarantining fleets and curtailing troop movement.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, DOD in the last week has canceled a joint military exercise with South Korea, restricted access to public areas at Army installations in Italy and ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days, essentially a self-quarantine.

U.S. Central Command has also ordered a stop to all nonessential travel in the Persian Gulf region. 

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Such moves seek to “minimize any kind of affect that this virus has on military preparedness,” a defense official told The Hill. 

“What DOD is trying to do is take prudent precautionary measure to prevent those kinds of things from affecting the force," the source said.

No deployments have yet been delayed due to concerns over the virus, but the postponement of military exercises raises the likelihood that troop readiness could suffer.

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperFirst US service member dies from coronavirus Pentagon orders military bases to stop releasing specific COVID-19 numbers Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed MORE told lawmakers on Wednesday that Pentagon efforts to curtail the virus “continues to evolve rapidly.”

Leadership is “making sure it doesn’t escape us,” Esper said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

Pentagon heads are also looking into whether the building may need more dollars to handle the spread of the virus, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers at the same hearing. 

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“It is spreading, and we can’t give you a definitive answer on whether we’re going to need additional resources or not,” Milley said alongside Esper. “We are taking all the appropriate measures right now. We’re doing estimates of the situation, so we owe you some answers.”

The Pentagon since late January has sought to dampen the risk of spreading the deadly virus within the ranks. More than 84,000 people have been infected by the virus — the majority in China, where the virus originated — though it has spread to 55 countries, including the United States.

As of Saturday, at least 67 coronavirus cases have been recorded in the United States, with one death in Washington state. A U.S. service member in South Korea as well as their spouse also tested positive for the illness.

The department first issued guidance to its personnel and service members on Jan. 30 that informed forces on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the illness.

Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 2, U.S. military officials in South Korea announced that a 14-day self-quarantine was imposed on U.S. troops who had recently traveled to China.

The Pentagon has since warned that the virus “is an increasing force health protection threat” to DOD personnel, according to a Feb. 25 memo from Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan.

At military installations around the world, DOD personnel and their families are finding themselves restricted by the new threat. 

U.S. European Command's top general, Tod Wolters, told Senate lawmakers on Tuesday that in Germany — home to the largest U.S. military presence in Europe at more than 33,000 troops — an anticipated increase in coronavirus cases could lead to restricted troop movement. 

In Vicenza, Italy, where 6,000 to 7,000 U.S. troops plus thousands of their family members live and work, the Army has closed on-base schools, childcare centers, churches and gyms as a precautionary measure as the disease spreads across country.

Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command on Thursday issued a memo to military personnel in Saudi Arabia banning all nonessential travel, including “going to the mall, movies, other crowded venues or recreational facilities/establishments.”

In addition, all "leave and liberty travel" within the Central Command theater is suspended. For example, “personnel assigned to a unit in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia] cannot take a pass/leave/trip to United Arab Emirates or Jeddah for the weekend,” the memo states.

And the Navy’s 7th Fleet, its largest fleet, has been directed to remain at sea for 14 days “to permit adequate time for surveillance and monitoring,” of possible cases of the virus.

“Out of an abundance of caution Pacific Fleet is implementing additional mitigations to prevent sailors from contracting COVID-19 and to monitor sailors who have traveled to higher risk areas,” a defense official told The Hill.

The 14-day requirement is waived if the ship is returning to the same port it most recently left from.

The official added that at this time there are no indications that any Navy personnel have contracted coronavirus.

Despite the efforts underway to curtail coronavirus, lawmakers are still concerned that the military’s response may fall short.

Several House lawmakers pressed Esper during Wednesday’s hearing on how the department is preparing for its role in a possible coronavirus pandemic.

And Senate Armed Services Committee member Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on Friday pressed the Pentagon chief on how DOD will protect members of the military and their families from the illness.

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“I have questions about the current status of the [Defense Department] response and infection prevention efforts,” Tillis wrote in a letter to Esper. “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.”

The message from the Pentagon on the virus’s threat starkly contrasts that of the White House, which has insisted that the virus is under control, even as the World Health Organization on Friday labeled it a high-level threat.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE on Wednesday insisted that is not "inevitable" that the virus will spread across the United States, as health experts have warned, and later at a Friday rally in South Carolina said that “the Democrats are politicizing” the virus, which is “their new hoax.” 

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney also downplayed the virus’s threat to the public, claiming on Friday that news media was stoking panic in order to damage the president’s reelection chances.