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Masked commuters travel through Seojeong-ri Station, north of Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Masked commuters travel through Seojeong-ri Station, north of Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (Matthew Keeler/Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL, South Korea — The Navy has ordered sailors on leave in China to return immediately and go into isolation for 14 days, while the U.S. military said Monday that about 25 service members who recently traveled to the mainland have been quarantined in South Korea to prevent the spread of a deadly new respiratory virus.

Indo-Pacific Command has banned nonessential travel to mainland China, where the novel coronavirus originated, and directed all Defense Department personnel there on temporary duty and leave status to depart immediately. But the pneumonia-like disease has spread to many other countries in the region, including South Korea and Japan, prompting military and civilian authorities to scramble to contain it.

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chris Aquilino ordered identified sailors “to avoid public areas, gyms, and close contact with others during the 14-day observation period,” according to a message to his commanders obtained Sunday by Stars and Stripes.

He also ordered screening of all personnel on leave to find out who might have been exposed to the virus.

“As a service we inherently work in close quarters in our operational units, and our personnel are the primary resource for all our platforms,” he wrote. “If you have active duty personnel on leave in China, ensure they return as soon as possible. Any active duty personnel returning from China shall be kept separate from their unit for a period of 14 days, starting from day of departure from China.”

“All Commands are directed to ensure members report any travel to China or personal contract with individuals who have traveled to China since [Dec. 31],” he ordered. Sailors who live aboard a ship or with others and desire to be kept apart from potential exposure will be provided temporary lodging off ship, Aquilino wrote, noting there isn’t funding to support the cost to the command.

Sailors returning from China will be assessed within 24 hours and have daily checks for symptoms such as fever, sore throat, coughing or difficulty breathing, Aquilino wrote. Sailors who show any symptoms must notify their commands and report to their medical departments, according to the order.

“A plain surgical mask should be donned as soon as possible,” the message states. Civilians and contractors on leave in China should comply with directions from civil authorities, including the State Department, Aquilino wrote. Civilian personnel returning from China shall be placed on administrative leave for 14 days, starting from day of departure from China. Returning contractors are effectively barred from Navy worksites for two weeks from the day they departed China.

U.S. Forces Korea issued a similar directive over the weekend, ordering a “self-quarantine” for any U.S. troops who have been to China and returned to South Korea since Jan. 19. It stressed the overall risk for U.S. forces was low and nobody had been found to have symptoms, but it was acting “out of an abundance of caution.”

“The USFK self-quarantine directive is mandatory for U.S. servicemembers, but highly encouraged for everyone else in the interest of public health,” USFK spokesman Col. Lee Peters said, adding that it also applies to temporary layovers on the mainland regardless of duration.

About 25 U.S. troops in South Korea have so far complied with the directive, which restricts them from leaving their residences or barracks, Peters said, adding that provisions were being made for groceries and other necessities.

Individuals arriving at a USFK installation from China will be screened by a health care provider before going into quarantine, then will be required to self-monitor their condition including two temperature checks per day submitted to leadership and a health care provider.

Health care providers will do personal check-ins every 48 hours until the service member is cleared after the two-week period, which is the viral incubation period. “Family members, [Defense Department] civilians, contractors, United Nations Command military personnel and Korean National employees can leave their residence, but are highly encouraged to comply with USFK's quarantine directive the interest of public health safety,” Peters said.

South Korea, which as of Monday has confirmed 15 cases of people infected with the virus, has quarantined about 800 soldiers who have recently visited China or surrounding regions. It also postponed training sessions for reserve forces in a bid to contain the virus, the defense ministry said Monday.

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this Twitter: @kimgamel Twitter: @SethRobson1

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