last updated: March 31, 2020
The United States military plays a major role in how the nation deals with a crisis. In the age of coronavirus, this is no exception. Since the start of the domestic response to COVID-19, the military has been active in a variety of sectors including research, alternative testing and healthcare facility construction, and much more.
As of March 31st, 2020, National Guard units have been utilized in all 50 states; American troops around the globe are affected by or participating in coronavirus containment measures.
COVID-19 and the coronavirus present a unique challenge to the military because unlike the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or even Hurricane Katrina, the military’s role in the coronavirus crisis is complicated by the potential virus threat to the responders.
Are there cases of COVID-19 and coronavirus outbreak problems within the military? If the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are considered to be miniature representations of American society in general, it should not be surprising to learn that yes, there ARE cases within the ranks.
But how many cases exactly? Until March 31, 2020, reports were coming in on a daily basis describing soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines affected by COVID-19 in one form or another. But going forward, the numbers are not published on a by-unit, by-command, or by MAJCOM basis; a DoD directive orders commanders and other officials from releasing specific information that would detail how coronavirus is affecting unit-level, base-level, command-level, or MAJOCOM-level operations.
DoD has pledged to release coronavirus numbers that represent the whole of the agencies under its’ jurisdiction but the general public will not be told that individual bases have specific numbers of active cases.
The numbers you see in this article (read below) are taken from the information available before the lockdown on releasing new numbers and does not necessarily reflect the current state of containment efforts or their effectiveness within DoD.
There Is No Coronavirus Conspiracy To Worry About
No sooner did the Pentagon issue the order to stop discussing specific case numbers (except as described above) outside the DoD than the conspiracy theories begin. But most of today’s social media conspiracy theory types forget the one important reason why the U.S. military embargoes this information; operational security.
Known as OPSEC in military circles, best-practices for protecting troops include embargoing a wide range of discussions on social media, to reporters, even to family members. Prior to deployments, troops are instructed not to share their activities on social media. They are also advised not to send emails discussing troop movement, preparations, deployment training, or planning.
The embargo on stats related to the coronavirus makes a great deal of sense in this context as continued revelations about overseas and domestic military bases under siege by the coronavirus gives a potential terrorist plenty of intel in which to use to plan an attack. Terrorists and enemy commanders in more conventional warfare both gather data from a wide variety of sources to identify weaknesses and security holes.
And that is why there is a restriction on releasing certain specific coronavirus / COVID-19 stats from the DoD. With that in mind, the numbers from the following sections below are still important; it’s hard to get a good idea of the virus and its destructive potential without seeing how the numbers specifically multiply on an exponential or near-exponential level when unchecked.
When you read the information below, keep that notion in mind, practice good social isolation measures, and do not give in to the temptation to believe in unfounded theories about why the military is taking the actions it must in these trying times.
This page will see future updates as circumstances warrant, but those updates will reflect the general numbers of coronavirus cases across the Defense Department.
Actual Cases, Presumptive Cases, And Quarantine
A report issued on March 20, 2020, announced that more than 120 cases were evident within the Department of Defense as a whole; the numbers included:
- 67 military members
- 26 dependents
- 16 DoD contractors
- 15 civilians
Cases Spread Quickly
Three days later, news outlets were reporting DoD new stats:
- 243 total cases of COVID-19 within the Department of Defense
- 133 military
- 35 dependents
- 44 civilians
- 31 Defense Department contractors.
The DoD announced the first military-connected coronavirus death (a DoD contractor) announced March 22, 2020.The Defense Department announced the first military-connected coronavirus death March 22: a DoD contractor based in Falls Church, Virginia who worked for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The first coronavirus-related death of a military dependent occurred on March 26, 2020 at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
One reason for the sense of urgency to initiate COVID-19 isolation procedures?
In spite of early claims by some in the public eye that coronavirus issues were “a hoax” or “blown out of proportion and not serious”?
Careful observers of the March 23rd updates will note that the number of cases among military members roughly doubled, ditto for Defense Department contractors. And the March 27, 2020 numbers are more than doubled from 133 on March 23 to 309 on the 27th.
Coronavirus cases within the Department of Defense as of March 27, 2020:
- 652 total cases of COVID-19 in the DoD
- 309 military
- 108 dependents
- 134 civilians
- 62 Defense Department contractors.
The approximate doubling of the numbers is definitely a factor to respect in terms of whether you should participate in social distancing, isolation, etc.
An exponential or-near-exponential spread of the virus is possible and it’s important to note the gravity of the increasing number of cases. New York City is an excellent example of what happens when coronavirus spreads to a densely packed population.
Rising cases are only part of the equation; “flattening the wave” of simultaneous cases flooding the military and civilian hospital systems means identifying at what point the number of multiplying cases breaks and the “wave” starts to roll back.
Published reports from the New York Times point to an order from the Defense Secretary, warning U.S. commanders in overseas locations, “…not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of Mr. Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge”.
In spite of that order, Pentagon officials estimate the coronavirus crisis could last months longer than the “hopefully by Easter” messaging from the White House. Defense Secertary Mark Esper is on record stating, “I think we need to plan for this to be a few months long, at least, and we’re taking all precautionary measures to do that,”
Also chiming in? Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who says the crisis could run as far into the summer as July.
First Coronavirus Reports From U.S. Navy Ships At Sea, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan
The Pentagon announced three positive coronavirus cases aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier which has been deployed and is currently at sea. Published reports state the USS Roosevelt (with a ship’s crew of roughly five thousand) made a stop in a port during a visit to Vietnam 15 days prior. DoD officials did not go on the record claiming that the exposure to coronavirus happened there.
Multiple aircraft landings on the carrier while underway could be viewed as a possible source of exposure.
The first coronavirus case at Guantanamo Bay has also been reported; a sailor there has tested positive and is currently in isolation/quarantine. The coronavirus outbreak has also spread to American-led forces in Afghanistan with four service members in the U.S. / NATO coalition. It is not safe at press time to presume these are American troops; no nationalities have been released at the time of this writing.
How Coronavirus Affects The Department of Veterans Affairs
There are also reports of coronavirus infections among those served by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Details on VA staff members reporting coronavirus symptoms was not available at press time, but on March 14th the VA issued the announcement of the first VA-connected death associated with coronavirus.
At press time, the VA was tracking roughly 130 “total positive cases” among the veteran population but was no longer identifying who was actually infected versus presumptive cases.
Military Efforts To Combat The Coronavirus
The United States Army provides an excellent example of the efforts within the DoD to find a treatment for symptoms as well as a vaccine that could be used to prevent the spread of the infection at a later point.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy says work between the Army, other government agencies, and private sector companies is headed toward human trials (after animal testing had taken place).
U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research have also been tasked to test coronavirus vaccines. These agencies are coordinating their efforts with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health.
Army efforts also include helping out with the thousands of COVID-19 screening tests that need to be processed; a March 20, 2020 Defense.gov report says the Army and its testing partners were testing just over 800 COVID-19 screening kits, but the end goal is to ramp up production to handle a significantly higher number; as many as 16,000 each day.
The U.S. Army alone has nine facilities with clinical laboratories which have been certified to process the test kits.
On the ground, U.S. Navy Hospital Ships have been sent to New York and California to help in healthcare efforts there; Guard and Reserve units are being activated in the wake of an Executive Order issued by the President authorizing use of Individual Ready Reserve troops and Selected Reserve members to assist in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
Are U.S. Troops Vulnerable To The Coronavirus?
U.S. troops are at risk for coronavirus the same as any other American citizen, but depending on career fields, mission conditions, and other variables, some troops are more at risk than others. Healthcare workers, force protection jobs, and other specialties that bring troops into contact with potentially infected people are an obvious risk.
The U.S. Department of Labor advises that coronavirus exposure risk is “elevated for workers who interact with potentially infected individuals” in the following fields:
- Airport/flightline operations
- Border protection
- Solid waste and wastewater management
- Travel to affected areas
It’s not just those stationed at overseas military bases or stateside assignments who have to worry; look at these U.S. Navy coronavirus outbreak incidents reported since the beginning of March:
- One military member tests positive aboard the guided-missile destroyer Ralph Johnson;
- Multiple coronavirus positives on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt,
- A sailor aboard the littoral combat ship Coronado tested positive for coronavirus;
- A staff member with U.S. 2nd Fleet (Norfolk, Virginia) tested positive for coronavirus;
Some might have assumed being on board a Navy ship currently underway might offer a layer of protection, but like cruise ships, a Navy vessel is a closed environment and chances of spreading the virus in such conditions is elevated.
Vaccines For COVID-19 And Coronavirus Reporting Procedures
Those who experience symptoms are urged to call their healthcare provider (call FIRST) before attempting to report in person for screening. Symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
Active duty troops should first obey any self-reporting or self-quarantine guidelines established by your unit, squadron, or base command. That may or may not involve immediate self-quarantine, testing, etc. If you are not sure what your unit’s coronavirus policies are, contact your command support staff, First Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major, or unit orderly room.
Civilians, dependents, contractors, and others who may experience symptoms should call their healthcare provider first, follow all instructions by the provider, the command, or the VA–whichever is most applicable to you as a non-active duty coronavirus concern.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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