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Pentagon struggles to contain coronavirus outbreaks

Pentagon struggles to contain coronavirus outbreaks
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An infection in the Pentagon's top ranks, a fresh outbreak aboard a Navy ship and a record 1,300 new daily cases — all in one week.

The Defense Department, long one of the most effective federal agencies in containing the spread of the coronavirus among its people, is now grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country and globe.

The recent uptick in cases in the U.S. — more than 1 million over the past seven days — has military leaders scrambling to impose tougher restrictions on the thousands of personnel that work in the Pentagon.

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“This week the Defense Department is concerned, just like the rest of the government that there will be a rise in cases and we’re taking precautions to mitigate that,” a defense spokesman told The Hill.

Of top concern is the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, when many military personnel might gather with family members in enclosed spaces, prompting possible spread of the virus.

To combat this, the Pentagon will move to a higher health protection level on Nov. 26, cutting maximum occupancy to 40 percent and increasing the number of temperature checks on workers entering the building.

The step was taken “based on a steady increase in COVID-19 cases and positive test results on the Pentagon Reservation since the end of August 2020, as well as an increase in cases in the National Capital Region since the middle of September 2020,” according to a DOD statement released Friday.

The decision follows the Thursday revelation that retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, the temporary Pentagon policy chief, tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Pentagon said that Tata along with acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller and three service secretaries on Nov. 13 met with Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis, who later tested positive for COVID-19.

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Miller and the three service secretaries have not tested positive since, though Tata has begun a two-week quarantine and officials are “continuing to conduct further contact tracing of DOD personnel who have had close contact with the Lithuanian delegation or Mr. Tata,” top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Officials have stressed that the decision to up the health protection level was not made in response to the Tata’s positive test, rather, it is a response to an uptick in overall cases in the last several months both in the military and the country.

U.S. officials this past week recorded more than 1,300 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 among members of the armed forces, with nearly a quarter of the roughly 300 sailors stationed on guided missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy testing positive for the virus.

Though the test positivity rate among the armed forces is now 6.8 percent, lower than the U.S. national average, COVID-19 cases in the military have continued to grow alongside those in the United States.

More than 73,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed among members of the military, while tens of thousands more have been recorded among DOD family members, contractors and civilian personnel.

And earlier this week a 52-year-old Hawaii National Guardsman died from COVID-19, marking the military’s 11th death from the virus.

In the larger U.S. population, meanwhile, new coronavirus cases have surged over the last several weeks, with health officials recording more than one million new cases over the past seven days and the U.S. passing 250,000 deaths from the virus on Wednesday.

The latest numbers show that even the military has not been immune to the country's rush of new cases, despite it being one of the most stalwart arms of the government in terms of precautions. 

In late January, when only six people in the United States had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the Pentagon released its first coronavirus-related guidance to service members and personnel, even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE insisted the virus was under control.

That was followed with a partial lockdown placed on all military installations globally in March, prohibiting nonessential travel for DOD personnel and families and limiting access to bases.

Then in May a leaked Pentagon memo revealed that top Defense officials were planning for the possibility that the military would be dealing with the virus well into 2021, at the time cutting against White House messaging that the virus would recede in summer.

The department is not without its faults, however, and has come under fire over whether it has done enough to protect service members from the virus, most notably in the case of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. An outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier this spring resulted in more than 1,000 sailors contracting the coronavirus, forcing the ship to dock in Guam for weeks.

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And Tata’s positive test marks the second time COVID-19 has shown up among the Pentagon’s top officials.

In October, six of the seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in addition to two four-star officers, quarantined at home after attending a meeting with Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray, who tested positive for the coronavirus. The Marine Corps's No. 2 officer, Gen. Gary Thomas, also later tested positive.

Ray had attended a Gold Star family event in late September at the White House — where the virus quickly thereafter afflicted President Trump and numerous top aides — before meeting with the Joint Chiefs in early October.

A Pentagon spokesman said while there are changes at the Pentagon at large in an effort to mitigate outbreaks, there has been no change specifically to top officials.

They said the department continues to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for testing and contact tracing, and test personnel before official travel and when required.