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The Defense Department is ramping up the precautions it is taking against the coronavirus as the disease continues to spread globally.
Service members’ travel is restricted in some places, access limitations have been placed on bases and exercises have been postponed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.
“My number one priority remains to protect our forces and their families,” Esper said. “Second is to safeguard our mission capabilities, and third to support the interagency, whole-of-government approach. We will continue to take all necessary precautions to ensure our people are safe and able to continue their very important mission.”
Esper said he has been meeting daily with members of the joint staff, military services and combatant commands on the virus. Additionally, at the end of last week he met with military and civilian leadership and the service secretaries.
“Geographic commanders have all the authority they need and will provide specific guidance as the situation evolves,” Esper said.
He added that DoD is assessing how the virus might affect exercises and training.
To that end, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the U.S. and South Korea will postpone joint-simulated command post training in response to the virus.
Milley said Cobra Gold, a large, multinational exercise in Thailand is ongoing and not impeded.
“The overall broad impact to the uniformed, U.S. military is very, very minimal,” Milley said. “That’s not to say it’s zero, but it’s very, very minimal. Very few cases have been diagnosed, etc. That’s not surprising because we have a young demographic, a healthy demographic, lots of immunizations.”
Doctors diagnosed the first U.S. service member with coronavirus on Feb. 25. The 23-year-old is stationed at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. He is currently in self quarantine, though he visited two other based in South Korea before his diagnosis.
Milley said access to bases in South Korea and northern Italy is currently restricted. He added that there are travel restrictions on troops in U.S. European Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
POLITICO obtained a Feb. 27 memo stating all leave and liberty travel to and within CENTCOM is banned.
“Example: Personnel assigned to a unit in Riyadh cannot take a pass/leave/morale, welfare and recreation trip to United Arab Emirates or Jeddah for the weekend,” the memo states.
Protective gear and test kits are also being distributed, with a priority of the distribution in Korea.
Acting Defense Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan issued a Feb. 25 memo on risk-based measured responses to the outbreak.
The memo tells installation commanders to maximize telework before the transmission of the disease hits the area.
If people are infected on the installation, commanders are encouraged to restrict travel, modify exercises and provide protective equipment for high risk personnel.
If infections continue, commanders should consider declaring a local public health emergency and limiting access to the base, canceling large gatherings.
If there is a widespread infection, commanders should do all of the previous tasks and also cancel non-mission essential activities and implement quarantine.
Milley noted that DoD is helping to form a vaccine for the virus.
“The military labs are working very consistently on a vaccine and working in direct support with Health and Human Services to do that,” Milley said. That work is being done at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.