US forces in Afghanistan, CENTCOM monitoring coronavirus amid reports of infections in the region

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S.-led international coalition in Afghanistan is closely monitoring the potential spread of coronavirus in the country, as Afghan officials confirmed the first case of infection Monday.

The health and safety of the international forces are “top priorities,” NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement, which came as American military officials throughout the Central Command area of responsibility were working to respond to the virus’s spread.

“As suspected cases are beginning to appear regionally, we are closely monitoring and implementing the guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to ensure our forces remain effective and able to continue support to our (Afghan) partners while preventing the spread of the virus,” the statement said.

A man from the western city of Herat who recently traveled to Iran has tested positive for the virus and has been quarantined, said Ahmad Tawhid Shokohmand, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Health Ministry.

The city is home to an Italian-run regional headquarters for the NATO mission at Camp Arena, which is home to some American and other international troops. The bulk of U.S. troops are based in the country’s east and south, hundreds of miles from the city.

Traders and workers from Herat frequently cross into Iran, where coronavirus infections have killed at least 50 people across the country, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Afghanistan has issued a ban on travel to Iran, Shokohmand said, and is preparing 30 beds in eight locations around the country for possible coronavirus patients.

The coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness, first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December. The World Health Organization has declared it a global health emergency, with more than 2,400 deaths around the world as of Sunday, most of them in China.

The outbreak has already led to heightened health and security measures at U.S. military bases in South Korea and Italy.

The U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, which lies across the Persian Gulf from Iran, also issued new guidance after the island kingdom said Monday that it had confirmed a coronavirus infection.

Service members entering Bahrain from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea are subject to a 14-day home quarantine in line with Bahraini guidelines, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement Monday. Service members are also being prevented from taking leave in those countries and territories, the statement said.

The Navy said it will follow its internal response protocols as well as CDC guidelines.

The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with people who are sick, as well as avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth. It also recommends regularly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

CDC guidance recommends masks for caregivers and people who are sick, but not for protection against respiratory diseases.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials In Iraq said they were working on a statement Monday afternoon regarding their coronavirus response, after COVID-19 was found in an Iranian student in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf on Monday.

Iraq closed its border with Kuwait after that country reported three cases of the illness among travelers who’d recently returned from Iran, Reuters reported Monday.

Over the weekend, Iraq extended a ban on non-Iraqis arriving from Iran. Two Omani women also contracted the virus after visits to Iran, Oman’s health ministry said Monday, according to Reuters.

Stars and Stripes reporters Chad Garland, Joshua Karsten and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

Twitter: @jplawrence3

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