Democrats press Esper on 'concerning' rise in Pentagon's COVID-19 cases

Democrats press Esper on 'concerning' rise in Pentagon's COVID-19 cases
© Greg Nash

A group of Senate Democrats is reviving its concerns about the Pentagon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing a spike in cases in July.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTop admiral: 'No condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Oldest living US World War II veteran turns 111 MORE, the nine senators called reports of a rise in cases among service members “concerning.”

“We are pleased to see that the department is taking some precautionary measures to address the spread of the virus, but are concerned that the department is still not properly prioritizing the health and well-being of our service members,” they wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday.

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As of Wednesday, the Pentagon has reported a total of 53,033 coronavirus cases connected to the department, including 36,600 cases in the military.

There have been a total of 80 deaths reported across the department, including six service members. Of the troops who have died, one was an active-duty sailor, while the others were reservists or National Guardsmen. 

The senators specifically highlighted that the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the Pentagon grew by more than 21,000 in July, a more than 100 percent increase.

The letter was organized by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden's fiscal program: What is the likely market impact? Warren, Schumer introduce plan for next president to cancel ,000 in student debt The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Don't expect a government check anytime soon MORE (D-Mass.) and co-signed by Democratic Sens. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats unveil plan declaring racism a public health issue Overnight Defense: US, Russia trade blame over Syria incident | Pentagon calls out China's 'counterproductive' military exercises, missile test | Democrats press Esper on COVID-19 response Democrats press Esper on 'concerning' rise in Pentagon's COVID-19 cases MORE (Hawaii), Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayTrump health officials grilled over reports of politics in COVID-19 response CDC director pushes back on Caputo claim of 'resistance unit' at agency The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump, Biden renew push for Latino support Sunday shows - Trump team defends coronavirus response Oregon senator says Trump's blame on 'forest management' for wildfires is 'just a big and devastating lie' MORE (Ore.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death Emboldened Democrats haggle over 2021 agenda Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election MORE (Ohio), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGOP senator blocks Schumer resolution aimed at Biden probe as tensions run high Republican Senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal Hillicon Valley: TikTok, Oracle seek Trump's approval as clock winds down | Hackers arrested for allegedly defacing U.S. websites after death of Iranian general | 400K people register to vote on Snapchat MORE (Ore.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - White House moves closer to Pelosi on virus relief bill EPA delivers win for ethanol industry angered by waivers to refiners It's time for newspapers to stop endorsing presidential candidates MORE (Minn.) and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocratic senator calls for eliminating filibuster, expanding Supreme Court if GOP fills vacancy McConnell says Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg will get Senate vote Massachusetts town clerk resigns after delays to primary vote count MORE (Mass.).

The latest letter follows one sent in April by the same group of senators — plus Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump and Biden vie for Minnesota | Early voting begins in four states | Blue state GOP governors back Susan Collins Kamala Harris: Black Americans have been 'disproportionately harmed' by Trump Biden town hall draws 3.3 million viewers for CNN MORE (D-Calif.), who has since become the Democratic vice presidential nominee — that sparked a fierce response by the Pentagon.

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In the April letter, the senators expressed “grave concern” with how the Pentagon was handling the pandemic, citing incidents such as the outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and images of Marines standing close together in long lines without face masks to get haircuts to comply with grooming standards.

The April letter elicited a six-paragraph statement from the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, a rebuke from Esper during a Pentagon press briefing and a letter from Esper to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

The Pentagon also replied directly to the senators in May in a letter released Thursday by Warren’s office.

“It is unfortunate that your letter used inaccurate media reports that have been discredited to unfairly portray the department while we are in the middle of the COVID-19 fight,” Robert Hood, the then-assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, wrote in the May response.

“To be clear, what we have done is work with some of the leading health care experts in the military and throughout the government to find the right balance of protecting our people and protecting America,” he added.

The Pentagon declined Thursday to comment on the senators' newest letter, with spokesperson Jessica Maxwell saying that "as with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter.”

In the new letter, the senators said they were “surprised” Esper would “deflect our concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on readiness and morale.” They cited Esper’s comment in his letter to Inhofe that their earlier letter “does not respect the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently deployed across the nation.”

“To be clear: our motivation is to protect the health and wellbeing of service members and their families, and our concerns are with you and the civilian leadership at DoD who are responsible for keeping American service members and their families safe and ready to accomplish their missions,” the Democratic senators wrote.

“While we understand the desire to write off the series of ongoing COVID-19-related problems in the DoD [Department of Defense] as a byproduct of ‘inaccurate media reports,’ and that DoD cannot prevent all cases of COVID-19, the fact remains that cases within the Department are rising at an alarming rate,” they added.

In addition to the thousands of COVID-19 cases tied to the department, the senators said that dozens of U.S. troops deployed to South Korea have tested positive for the virus when they arrived from the United States, and new cases among U.S. troops in Japan prompted the Japanese defense minister to accuse “the U.S. military of lax coronavirus controls.”

“Ensuring American service members and dependents do not have COVID-19 before traveling abroad must be of paramount concern to DoD leadership to maintain trust with partners and allies,” the senators wrote.

The Democrats said the May letter from Hood did not answer the specific questions in their April letter. They reiterated that they want answers to those dozen questions, including what the department’s current plan to address the pandemic is while continuing operations and protecting troops’ health, whether the department knows how many service members actually have the virus given asymptomatic cases, and what the department’s plan is for long-term mitigation in the event of future outbreaks.

“Congress stands ready to support the department, but we cannot do so if basic questions are not answered regarding DoD’s response,” they wrote. “We know you share our desire to protect U.S. service members, DoD civilians and their families while maintaining the highest possible readiness.”

Updated at 9:32 a.m.