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Military stepping up coronavirus prevention efforts for US troops in Thailand during multinational Cobra Gold exercise

The U.S. military is ramping up medical efforts this year at the annual, multinational exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand 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 plagued with cases of coronavirus, including Thailand where there are nearly 40 confirmed cases of the illness.

As a result, the military is stepping up prevention efforts so troops don’t get sick. On Tuesday, a U.S. soldier stationed in South Korea became the first service member to test positive for the virus.

“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.

It’s standard for the military to take into account the risk of illness for military operations, he said. As a result, the coronavirus threat means that the military is employing a bolstered force of medical personnel as the exercise continues through March 6.

“As part of the mitigation strategy we have brought additional medical capabilities, supplies, to include individual personal protective equipment, and additional preventive medicine specialists,” McArthur said. “Dealing with the threat of disease or illness is a common planning factor for all military operations and the U.S. military is fully prepared to successfully operate in any environment.”

Army Lt. Col. Luke Mease, the senior medical authority deployed to Cobra Gold 2020, said that U.S. joint forces have deployed more than 35 additional medical personnel to boost ability to detect the virus in those participating in the exercise, and added daily temperature screenings are being administered.

“We screen all U.S. force personnel before arriving and upon arrival in Thailand, who then receive a comprehensive force protection briefing that includes information pertaining to COVID-19 and preventive medicine procedures to mitigate the risk of contracting or spreading the virus,” Mease said.

Likewise, hygienic supplies including soap, hand sanitizer, and surgical masks have been distributed to participants since the exercise kicked off on Tuesday, he said. He added U.S. forces are working with the Thai Armed Forces and coordinating closely with the Thai Health Ministry and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mitigation efforts.

The opening ceremony of Exercise Cobra Gold 2020 is held at Camp Akathotsarot in Phitsanulok Province, Thailand, on Feb. 25, 2020. (Pfc. Lawrence Broadnax/INDOPACOM)
The opening ceremony of Exercise Cobra Gold 2020 is held at Camp Akathotsarot in Phitsanulok Province, Thailand, on Feb. 25, 2020. (Pfc. Lawrence Broadnax/INDOPACOM)

Cobra Gold, the largest joint-multinational military exercise in southeast Asia, will include a cyber exercise an amphibious assault exercise, a combined arms live fire exercise, along with various humanitarian assistance exercises.

According to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the exercise will be the first time the F-35B fighter jet will participate in the exercise. Another first for the exercise is including a landmine demolition demonstration.

McArthur said the exercise would not be modified in any way, in light of the precautions surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

“U.S. forces are scheduled to fully participate with no current operational impacts in Exercise Cobra Gold 2020, as we have done for the previous 38 years, and are committed to our allies in the Royal Thai Armed Forces and our many partners in the region who participate in Cobra Gold every year,” McArthur said.

There are more than 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world, including more than 2,400 outside of China where the virus originated, according to figures from the World Health Organization. Outside of China, South Korea has had the most confirmed cases of coronavirus.

In response, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has restricted all nonessential DoD travel to South Korea.

Altogether, the virus has claimed the lives of more than 2,600 within China and more than 30 outside of China.

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