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Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak

Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak
© Greg Nash

The Pentagon is retracing the steps of its top brass after a positive coronavirus case among senior officials forced Defense Department heads into quarantine.

News of Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray testing positive, which came after he attended a Sept. 27 White House event, broke after Ray had met with several other senior leaders at the Pentagon last week.

The Defense Department has since raced to conduct contact tracing, highlighting the stark difference between the Pentagon and White House, where administration officials have been reluctant to reveal key timeline details after President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE and top aides tested positive.

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“Simply because it is such a threat to readiness and can disable a ship, a building, a base, they take this very seriously,” Steve Morrison, a public health expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Pentagon’s response.

“It didn’t seem they were looking to be micromanaged by anyone, they sort of kicked in to gear,” he added.

Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday that the Pentagon is “conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission.”

Asked for specifics regarding its contact tracing and what additional precautions are being taken, a Pentagon spokesperson would only say that the department "follows CDC guidelines for contact tracing, as well as guidance from state and local public health officials."

Hoffman said Tuesday that all potential close contacts from the meetings involving Ray “are self-quarantining and have been tested.”

One of those close contacts, Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, has since tested positive. He was quarantining when his results were announced by the Defense Department.

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"We are aware of General Thomas’ positive test for COVID-19. At this time we have no additional senior leader positive test results to report. We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing," the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday night.

Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, are self-quarantining following Ray’s positive test.

Others who are quarantining include Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson and Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency.

The officials were possibly exposed during several meetings that Ray attended last week.

Ray tested positive on Monday after experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend. He had been indoors at the White House on Sept. 27 for a Gold Star family event in which several other top defense officials, including Milley and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement Top military officers cleared to return to Pentagon after quarantine MORE, were in attendance.

His diagnosis came amid a growing coronavirus outbreak centered on the White House, where Trump held an event in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.

Milley and Esper have so far tested negative for the illness. Both were traveling last week when others held meetings with Ray.

At the White House, deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern told reporters on Wednesday that the building’s contact tracing is “person based,” with medical professionals identifying the close contacts of any individuals that have tested positive for coronavirus within a 48-hour window.

“We look back 48 hours to find people who may have been within six feet for at least 15 minutes,” he said.

The White House has come under scrutiny for not being forthcoming about which staffers who have contracted the virus, with news of the diagnoses often coming from news leaks or aides offering up the information themselves.

Defense experts say things are different at the Pentagon.

Retired Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said contact tracing and coronavirus containment in the Defense Department is perceived as more ironclad than other government agencies since those who work at the Pentagon are far more likely to follow orders and adhere to procedures and precautions.

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“The Pentagon, to their credit, they all follow the rules,” Spoehr said.

Before Ray’s positive test result, Pentagon staff were already operating to a remote degree since the beginning of March, with most working in the building two days on and three days off, Spoehr noted.

Contact tracing in the military is also aided by meticulous record keeping and strict schedules. 

“The nice thing about the Pentagon is that it’s super organized — you know where everyone was,” Spoehr said. “It’s easy to look back and find out who was in meetings and who wasn’t.”

So far, the Defense Department has only recorded eight coronavirus-related deaths among service members, a far lower rate of fatality compared to the general population, where more than 210,000 people in the U.S. have died from the disease.

An additional 60 civilians, seven family members, and 23 defense contractors have also died from COVID-19.

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Morrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon’s relatively low numbers are a testament to both its culture and resources.

The Defense Department, he said, has the ability to “come to terms with quick response on testing, isolation and quarantine.”

Updated at 3:49 p.m.