US base in Djibouti to lock down after second contractor tests positive for coronavirus

Military officials were preparing Tuesday, April 28, 2020, to lock down Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, home to Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, after a second contractor was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Camp Lemonnier is the largest U.S. base on the continent.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 28, 2020

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U.S. military officials in Djibouti were preparing Tuesday to lock down Camp Lemonnier indefinitely after a second contractor tested positive for the coronavirus and was evacuated from the East African country.

The sick contractor was evacuated Tuesday morning, said another contractor who works at the base. The medical evacuation came a day after a defense official confirmed that the contractor had tested positive for the virus over the weekend.

Both the defense official who confirmed the positive test and the contractor asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

No service members in the region have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said. But as a precaution, military leaders were planning to block access to the base and have asked contractors living in town to move into temporary lodging on the military compound no later than May 4.

“We see this as a temporary measure, but the length of their stay will be determined by health conditions in Djibouti City,” said Capt. Scott Rye, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, which is headquartered at the former French Foreign Legion base in the tiny country’s capital.

More than 1,030 people have tested positive for the virus in the country and two have died from COVID-19, World Health Organization data showed Tuesday.

Another contractor on the base tested positive earlier this year, after being evacuated from Camp Lemonnier to Germany, the base’s commander said last month. At that time, base officials began blocking access to some 1,200 local nationals who worked at the facility.

The move to further restrict access came days after the Horn of Africa mission declared a public health emergency in the Djibouti Base Cluster, which includes Lemonnier, Chabelley Airfield and the Port of Djibouti.

As a precaution, the U.S. has built up medical capabilities at Camp Lemonnier and evacuated personnel considered at high risk for complications from the disease.

An unspecified number of contractors moved into temporary lodging following an April 17 letter inviting them to do so, Rye said. They were medically screened and given a swab test for the virus when they moved on base, he said.

But some of the contractors are reluctant to leave villas about four miles from the base, where they live in their own rooms, for containerized housing units with roommates and shared bathroom facilities. They say it would make it difficult to maintain social distancing.

“We are already practicing social distancing in our offices and all common areas/stores on base are either closed or severely restricted,” said one contractor, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, in an email to Stars and Stripes.

The employee provided an email from a government contracting official that said “many hundreds” on base live in similar shared rooms, and that while the accommodations weren’t as spacious as the villas, they were they best the base could do. Having a roommate put contractors at less risk than interacting with people in town, the official said.

But for some contractors who have spent several years in the country, other “points of contention” were lack of security at the villas where their belongings would be stored and, for a few with local families, separation for what they expected to be 30 to 60 days, the contractor said.

Details were unclear, but the contracting official’s email said the military was considering an exception to policy to let contractors leave base in case of family emergency or to briefly check on things off base, so long as they were not commuting.

At least one company has told its employees that, if they choose to remain off base, they would be charged time off and could be considered to have resigned unless they find another job within the company, a document provided by the same contractor said.

Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this report.

Twitter: @chadgarland