Customers wait to enter the commissary at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2020. Escalated health protection measures put limits on the number of people who can be inside the store at one time.

Customers wait to enter the commissary at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2020. Escalated health protection measures put limits on the number of people who can be inside the store at one time. (Matthew Keeler/Stars and Stripes)

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PYEONGTAEK, South Korea – The city near the main U.S. Army garrison in South Korea wants to conduct coronavirus tests on American civilians who work for the military after a recent spate of confirmed cases affiliated with U.S. Forces Korea, officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. military said it is in talks with local officials but nothing has been decided and no details were released, including the extent of the request. Camp Humphreys is the largest overseas U.S. base with a population exceeding 37,000, including service members, dependents, contractors and other civilian employees.

Officials in Pyeongtaek, about 40 miles south of Seoul, have been alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of infections linked to Camp Humphreys and the nearby Osan Air Base after several American contractors and other civilians tested positive for the virus.

USFK has imposed partial lockdowns on the two installations and restricted most non-essential on-base movement. Camp Humphreys also acknowledged Tuesday that a plan is in the works to limit the number of days personnel who live off-post can shop at the commissary, in line with a similar decision at Osan Air Base.

Only two soldiers have been infected since USFK confirmed its first case on Feb. 24, and the overall total of 20 is relatively low compared with the overall Pentagon tally of more than 1,500 U.S. service members.

However, the bump on Camp Humphreys comes as South Korea is cautiously optimistic that the crisis outside the gates is ebbing as its daily count fell below 50 for the second day in a row on Tuesday, compared with a peak of 909 on Feb. 29.

“We know there have been confirmed cases at Camp Humphreys, so we proposed that the two sides are going to need to share information on the issue in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” a health official in Pyeongtaek told Stars and Stripes. “We suggested that it would be good for the two sides to sign a memorandum of understanding.”

The city also wants to test American civilian employees working at Camp Humphreys for coronavirus, he said, since the military is focused on testing troops.

“But it is not yet written in stone,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. “The base is currently reviewing both proposals.”

Col. Michael Tremblay, the Camp Humphreys garrison commander, confirmed that negotiations on the request were underway but suggested the testing wouldn’t likely involve the entire population but rather “at risk” segments.

“There has been an ask from the mayor and the mayor’s office about testing,” he said Tuesday during a community update via Facebook live. “Certainly that’s in a negotiation of how and why and what they’re looking for.”

“The guidance I’ve received is we are going to do kind of the way that the government of Korea does it,” he said. “They don’t test whole cities so they’re not going to test our whole population.”

USFK, which commands some 28,500 service members as a bulwark against North Korea, had to rely on the South Koreans for tests when the coronavirus began to spread on the divided peninsula after first appearing in China in late December.

The military has since built its own testing laboratory at the Brian D. Allgood Army Community hospital on Camp Humphreys with the capacity to conduct 80 to 100 tests per day, but those have been largely reserved for service members and dependents.

USFK also confirmed Monday that it has outsourced samples from American troops stationed off the peninsula to South Korea labs.

"While we have the capability to test 80-100 tests daily, we want to ensure we maintain flexibility and not test to our maximum capacity in a given day,” USFK spokesman Col. Lee Peters said in an earlier email. “Therefore, we will outsource off-pen requests as needed to ensure we maintain the ability to test USFK and USFK-affiliated persons as needed.”

The command is confirming individual coronavirus cases as they are confirmed but has declined to provide aggregate numbers of people tested or quarantined due to recent Pentagon guidance. Twitter: @kimgamel

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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