U.S. Central Command said Thursday it was suspending leave and liberty for troops and Defense Department civilian workers to and within its area of responsibility over fears related to the spread of the coronavirus.
“U.S. Central Command is taking multiple prudent measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 Coronavirus and to mitigate the operational risk such transmission would pose,” CENTCOM told Military Times in an emailed statement.
CENTCOM said in a memo obtained by Politico that official travel or leave outside the CENTCOM area of operations was not affected.
The suspension of leave and liberty for American troops across the Middle East, first reported by Politico, comes as the New York Times reported Thursday an explosion of coronavirus cases in Iran.
The New York Times reported, citing the Iranian government, that there were 245 cases and that 26 people had died from the virus. Heath experts argue the numbers in Iran are likely higher.
The coronvirus has spread across the Middle East to Bahrain, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon, among other locations, from travelers returning from Iran, the New York Times reported.
Over the last week the U.S. military and several geographic combatant commands have had to make a number of difficult decisions from DoD school closures to the suspension of an exercise in Korea over the rapidly spreading virus.
In the Indo-Pacific Command area of operations, U.S. Forces Korea announced Wednesday it was postponing an upcoming combined command post training following an emergency declaration in South Korea as confirmed cases of the virus exploded.
“Despite the postponement of combined training, the ROK-US alliance remains committed to providing a credible military deterrence and maintaining a robust combined defense posture to protect the ROK against any threat,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a news release.
A U.S. soldier stationed in South Korea became the first service member to test positive for the coronavirus — a day after the widow of a retired soldier living in Daegu, South Korea, contracted the virus, according to U.S. Forces Korea.
The soldier, who is 23 years old and is stationed at Camp Carroll near Daegu, visited Camp Carroll between Feb. 21-25, and neighboring Camp Walker on Feb. 24. He is currently being quarantined at his home off base, according to the command.
A military official with INDOPACOM told Military Times that the combatant command is being diligent to keep U.S. troops safe and mitigate the spread of the virus. More exercises could be canceled in the coming days.
However, the annual Thailand- based Cobra Gold exercise involving thousands of troops to include U.S. Marines kicked off Tuesday.
The U.S. military said it was ramping up medical efforts this year at the annual, multinational exercise in Thailand, which has nearly 40 confirmed cases of the illness, to safeguard against the spread of coronavirus.
More than 5,500 U.S. troops are participating in this year’s exercise, along with troops from countries including Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea. Meanwhile, Asia has been hit hard by coronavirus.
“Through strict adherence to force health protection measures and a comprehensive mitigation strategy, we currently assess the risk of infection from coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) remains low, and we have ensured there is a strict command emphasis on adhering to prudent force health protection measures,” Marine Corps Capt. George McArthur, a spokesman for the Cobra Gold 2020 Combined-Joint Information Bureau, said in an email to Military Times.
Following cases of the coronavirus across Vicenza, Italy, where the U.S. has nearly 7,000 U.S. troops, U.S. European Command took precautions to include the closure of DoD schools.
School closed Monday for K-12 students at U.S. Army Garrison Italy in Vicenza.
“U.S. Army Garrison Italy has encouraged families in the Vicenza Military Community to stay close to home and minimize interactions with crowds, such as at malls, movie theaters, and restaurants through Mar. 1,” Lt. Cmdr. Joe Hontz, a spokesman for EUCOM, told Military Times in an emailed statement.
Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of EUCOM, told lawmakers Tuesday that he was expecting coronavirus cases to increase in Germany as well and that EUCOM was “prepared to execute.”
EUCOM told Military Times it has not issued any theater wide advisories or travel restrictions across the command but may do so as the situation continues to develop.
However, U.S. Army Europe has directed that travel to and from the Lombardy and Veneto regions in Italy is restricted to non-mission essential personnel, according to Hontz.
EUCOM is assessing potential impacts to training and operations across its area of operations, Hontz explained.
“The health and safety of our personnel are a priority for USEUCOM and we are taking this situation seriously,” Hontz said.
U.S. Africa Command told Military Times that there have been no changes to operations or activities across its area of responsibility.
“We continue to monitor the situation," AFRICOM said in an emailed statement to Military Times.
“The health protection of our forces is a priority, and we are working to ensure that our personnel have the most up-to-date information on appropriate measures to take to prevent potential spread," AFRICOM said.
U.S. Northern Command told Military Times that it was tasked to start “prudent planning” as the DoD’s “global synchronizer for the Department's Pandemic Influenza and Infectious Disease plans.”
“In that role, U.S. Northern Command coordinates with other Geographic Combatant Commands to assess potential impacts in the event of a pandemic,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Hatfield, a spokesman for NORTHCOM, told Military Times.
Hatfield explained that NORTHCOM’s current planning with regards to the coronavirus in no way indicates “there is a greater likelihood of an event developing.”
“As military professionals, planning for a range of contingencies is something we owe the American people and we take that role very seriously,” Hatfield said.
U.S. Southern Command told Military Times that it has taken “prudent steps” to inform troops and personnel of the most recent information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the coronavirus.
“As of 27 Feb. 2020, SOUTHCOM has no reports of SOUTHCOM personnel suspected or confirmed of having been exposed to COVID-19. The command has, so far, issued no travel restrictions to assigned personnel, or cancelled any operations or activities due to the COVID-19 virus,” SOUTHCOM told Military Times in an emailed statement.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.