Coronavirus in the US Army: from ‘the bubble’ to the battlefield

Secretary Mark Esper is in isolation and America's top military man in Korea is at war with the virus

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The Pentagon’s two top officials and their teams are now avoiding any in-person contact as the pair seek to stop coronavirus impacting the US military’s political leadership.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper and his team are now avoiding contact with Deputy Defence Secretary David Norquist and his team as a precaution as the country starts taking steps to stop a national crisis.

"We are attempting to put ... a bubble around the two of them," Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told a news briefing on Monday evening, adding that Mr Esper's visitors were being limited and screened.

The Pentagon has undergone a transformation of sorts. Hallways at one of the world's biggest office buildings, with as many as 26,000 personnel on a busy day, seem largely empty.

Tours were cancelled and most visitors denied access. Police tape blocked off access to a number of tables near Pentagon restaurants while buffet stations and soft drink machines had been shuttered.

"All self-service station options are shut down," a poster on the buffet line said.


Mr Hoffman said a total of 18 servicemembers have so far tested positive, up from 10 on Saturday and just four a week ago.

He and another official have acknowledged the US military has the ability to build tent hospitals to help civilian authorities in the United States grapple with a potential influx of coronavirus patients but suggested no such request had come so far.

But limiting how much of the military staff are affected is now some soldiers’ top concern.

Unlike civilian leaders, who must ask the population to avoid large gatherings, US military commanders have the ability to order their forces to change their lifestyles – and fast.

The commander overseeing the 28,500 or so American troops in hard-hit South Korea, Army General Robert Abrams said he was treating the coronavirus response like a full-fledged military operation – complete with predictive analysis, regular command briefings and more.

Even his language has the sound of a battlefield update.

"We've approached it similarly to how we operate in combat. We apply speed and violence of action on contact," Gen Abrams told Pentagon reporters.

"This is not an administrative task, this is not a medical task and it's not a routine event. But it's an operation."

Gen Abrams says he believes his operation has been a success: out of a population of 58,000 people that interact with and among US Forces-Korea daily, nine patients have tested positive for coronavirus. Only one is a US servicemember.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he said.

Still, an increasing number of cases are popping up across the military elsewhere, including one soldier who tested positive in recent days at a base in Germany as well as two servicemembers in Naples, Italy.

US Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the Army's top general in Europe, said his Italian and Polish counterparts showed no signs of the coronavirus when they met at a conference in Germany just over a week ago.

"Nobody was showing symptoms of anything," Gen Cavoli said of the March 6 gathering. "Everything was fine."

Then they tested positive.

In his first interview from self-isolation, Gen Cavoli detailed how he has been demonstrating the safety measures he expects his soldiers to follow across Europe, which the World Health Organization says is now the pandemic's global centre.

"If you come into contact with somebody who turns out to be Covid positive ... then you go in to self-isolation," Gen Cavoli said, adding he had carved out a "clean enclave" for himself in and around his residence in Germany.

Gen Cavoli, who says he is in good health, is the highest ranking official known to be in self-isolation so far.

His case is just one example of how the US military is upending protocols around the world, shuttering base facilities, from movie theatres to cafeteria tables where troops might congregate, and cancelling military drills.

Still, a total of 18 troops worldwide have tested positive for coronavirus, up from four cases a week ago. New cases include ones at Travis Air Force Base in California and Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

On Sunday, the US Navy reported the first positive case of a sailor aboard a warship.