With the Pentagon already greatly restricting travel to fight the spread of the coronavirus,, U.S. Central Command is adding additional caveats for travel among troops within the command’s area of operations amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to CENTCOM commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., there’s concern the virus could spread into countries that share a border with Iran. Iran is neighbors with Iraq, where the U.S. has up to 6,000 troops.
“Iran sits in the middle of the theater,” McKenzie said told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “So their ability to pass that infection to other states is very worrisome."
Starting on Friday, the Pentagon is barring all troops, family members, and military civilian employees from traveling to countries including Italy, South Korea, and China for the next 60 days. Specifically, the memo cited all countries the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated “Warning Level 3,” meaning the agency recommends to avoid nonessential travel.
After the memo was released, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention added more than 20 countries to the list, primarily countries in Europe. The CDC previously designated Iran as a “Warning Level 3” state.
Already, McKenzie said one contractor in CENTCOM’s area of operations has exhibited coronavirus symptoms, and another person who is currently quarantined. In order to increase isolation, McKenzie said that only mission-essential travel is continuing in the CENTCOM theater.
“Right now, we believe we have good precautions in place,” McKenzie said. “We’ve cut back significantly on intra-theater travel.”
Iran has had more than 8,000 cases of coronavirus and nearly 300 deaths stemming from the illness, according to the World Health Organization. But McKenzie anticipates there are even more.
“I believe the numbers are probably significantly underreported in terms of coronavirus victims in Iran,” McKenzie said. “So we look at that pretty hard going forward, because the permeability and the porousness of the borders.”
CENTCOM doesn’t expect Iranian troops to remain insulated from consequences related to the illness, according to McKenzie.
“It’s going to have some effect on the military instrument,” McKenzie said.
Several U.S. troops have already contracted the virus, including a soldier in South Korea, a including a soldier in South Korea, a sailor in Italy, and a Marine in Virginia.
Additionally, the military has modified multiple military exercises to prevent the virus from spreading.
“The Department of Defense’s top priority remains the protection and welfare of our people," said Esper in a statement Wednesday. “I remain confident in our ability to protect our service members, civilians and families.”