Pentagon halts all overseas travel, increases restrictions at bases as coronavirus cases reach 600
By COREY DICKSTEIN, CAITLIN M. KENNEY AND KAT BOUZA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2020
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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper has issued orders barring nearly all official movement for Defense Department personnel overseas and instituted new health protection measures worldwide as the Pentagon attempts to slow the spreading coronavirus, which has sickened at least 600 people in the military community.
Esper’s stop-movement order applies to all service members, DOD civilians and sponsored family members serving in any location overseas, the Pentagon announced late Wednesday. The order halts almost all travel for at least 60 days related to “exercises, deployments, redeployments and other global force management activities,” according to a Pentagon memorandum.
The order came just hours after Esper had elected to raise the health protection condition level at military bases worldwide to its second-highest threat level, HPCON Charlie. That decision places restrictions on large gatherings, adds temperature checks for personnel at building access points, and largely limits base access to mission-essential individuals.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, told reporters Wednesday that he expected military-related cases of the virus to continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
“Our curve is not flattening,” Friedrichs said during a Pentagon news briefing. “… We think the best way to limit that growth or mitigate that growth are the measures that we've been talking about.”
Thursday morning, Pentagon officials announced an increase of 163 coronavirus cases worldwide among its service members, their dependents, DOD civilian workers and defense contractors. Pentagon officials said 600 individuals linked to the military had now tested positive for the virus worldwide. One person, a defense contractor, died of the disease Saturday.
The largest increase was among military troops with 73 new cases reported, marking the biggest single-day jump of cases among troops announced during the outbreak. As of Thursday, 304 service members had tested positive for the virus in recent weeks. Among them, 24 had recovered from the disease and 15 were hospitalized, DOD reported.
The new data also included the first case of a service member permanently station at the Pentagon to test positive for the virus, a Marine who has been in self-isolation since March 13. The Air Force previously announced two individuals — an active-duty airmen stationed elsewhere and a defense contractor assigned to the Pentagon — had been in the military’s Arlington, Va., headquarters in March and later tested positive for the virus. Both have since been isolated and received medical care, officials said.
Friedrichs on Wednesday declined to speculate about a timeline for slowing the virus’ spread or ending measures implemented across the force — like telework to allow for social distancing. On Tuesday, Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said people should expect the outbreak to last at least three months in the United States.
Esper’s overseas stop-movement order will likely impact some 90,000 service members slated to deploy or return to their home stations during the next 60 days, Pentagon officials said.
However, it should not slow the ongoing drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan, which started this month as part of a peace plan agreed to with the Taliban late last month.
The drawdown of some 3,400 troops, leaving about 8,600 in Afghanistan, “is scheduled to be complete within 135 days following the signed agreement,” the memo stated.
Esper’s order also allows for other exceptions, which could be granted by commanders for issues such as obtaining medical treatment, mission-essential travel or humanitarian reasons on a case-by-case basis, the memo states. Other authorized exceptions include scheduled deployments or redeployments of Navy vessels, provided they have met the restriction of movement requirements now in place.
“This measure is taken to aid in further prevention of the spread of the coronavirus disease to protect U.S. personnel and preserve the operational readiness of our global force,” according to the memo.
Friedrichs said he hopes the measures being taken in the United States will start to show similar success as seen in South Korea in stopping the spread of the virus. But it could take weeks to find out for certain.
“This is a pandemic,” he said. “This is a significant infectious disease outbreak, and it is going to be weeks, not days. It's going to take intensive measures, as we are implementing, to mitigate it.”
Stars and Stripes staff member Joseph Ditzler contributed to this report.