WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is still holding the coronavirus largely at bay, even as it cancels or scales back exercises and ponders how to cope with the traditional summertime job moves by thousands of service members.
As of Tuesday, three active duty service members had confirmed cases of the virus, officially called COVID-19, Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the senior medical officer on the Joint Staff told reporters at the Pentagon. Of those, one is in South Korea, one in Italy and one in the United States. “All are doing well at this point,” Friedrichs said. In addition, one Defense Department civilian, four dependents and one Pentagon contractor have also been confirmed as having contracted the virus, and six additional people are being evaluated as “presumptive” cases, he said.
By contrast, as of Tuesday there were 808 total cases in the United States, according to a running tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. However, Friedrichs said that the Defense Department numbers likely represent an undercount, given how quickly the disease is spreading. But he said he couldn’t estimate what the actual number of cases might be.
Friedrichs attributed the Defense Department’s success — so far — in avoiding any serious outbreaks in part to the military’s relatively young and healthy population, whose symptoms often amount to no more than “a mild cold,” as well as to the department’s constant reinforcement of “common sense” measures like frequent handwashing and checking on the health of one’s peers if they appear unwell.
In addition, Friedrichs cited the military’s long-standing plans for how to combat infectious disease outbreaks. “The military is good on planning,” he said. “We’re also good on trying to decrease risk.”
One way the military is mitigating risk is by reducing its participation in some large multinational training exercises. U.S. Africa Command announced Tuesday that the African Lion 2020 exercise, which involves U.S., Moroccan, Senegalese and Tunisian forces, among others, and is scheduled to begin March 23, would only include those parts of the exercise that do not require troops to be lodged “in close quarters.”
In late February, the U.S. and South Korean militaries canceled their annual joint training exercises, one of a series of what Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman described as “highly aggressive and effective” steps that Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, has taken to minimize the risk to his troops in South Korea, which is experiencing one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks outside China. But the virus has not resulted in “any dramatic reduction in readiness or the ability of our forces,” according to Hoffman. Rear Adm. William Byrne, vice director of the Joint Staff, told reporters that U.S. forces in Korea are continuing to conduct small-unit training. “We’re maximizing every opportunity to maintain our readiness,” he said.
But the scale of the outbreak in South Korea, where there have been more than 7,500 confirmed cases, persuaded the U.S. Army to halt all movement of soldiers in and out of the country, where about 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed. Some soldiers and their families on the peninsula, who had been preparing to move to new military assignments in the United States or elsewhere, had already shipped their household goods and furniture when the Army issued its order, which is effective through May 6 “or until further notice,” according to a U.S. Forces Korea statement.
The Army likewise banned all movements of soldiers to and from Italy, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases (9,172 as of Tuesday) in Europe. The Army’s actions underline the tough decisions that the military will have to take regarding those countries and others with the approach of summer, the time of year when military personnel traditionally change duty stations. The Pentagon is weighing its options, given the danger of personnel contracting the virus during international or cross-country air travel. “The movement alone can put people at risk,” Hoffman said. High-level meetings between the services are ongoing in order to come up with a department-wide policy, he said.
Meanwhile, Defense Department research facilities, in coordination with other government agencies, are experimenting with “a variety of medications” in the hope of developing an effective treatment for the coronavirus, Friedrichs said. The department is also working to develop better tests for the virus as well as to come up with a vaccine, he said.
Of the three, new testing capabilities are “probably going to be the easiest to deliver,” followed by the countermeasures, he said, adding that developing a vaccine will take the longest. “That typically takes months and sometimes years to develop a safe and effective vaccine,” Friedrichs said.
At a press conference on Monday, he explained that any potential vaccine would first have to undergo safety testing, then more widespread testing to evaluate its effectiveness before being released to the general public.
The department’s response to the virus is reaching the uppermost levels of command and the innermost parts of the Pentagon. On Monday, senior leaders in the Pentagon held a meeting that would normally include “as many people as you can cram into a room,” but instead was spread between several rooms connected by video-teleconference, Hoffman said. During the meeting, he added, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley sat six feet apart, the recommended distance to avoid transfer of the virus. “Everyone should practice good social distancing,” Friedrichs said.
To that point, Hoffman chided the journalists at Monday’s press conference for sitting too close together. When some of the same reporters turned up for Tuesday’s press conference, they found their chairs placed several feet apart from each other.
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