The command in charge of processing new recruits into the services has updated its policy for accessing coronavirus survivors, loosening restrictions banning anyone who has been diagnosed to only those who were hospitalized because of complications.
The change came days after an original memo circulated on Twitter, causing an uproar in the face of a pandemic that will touch millions of Americans, according to public health estimates.
That guidance was part of an “interim” memo, which characterized a COVID-19 diagnosis as a no-go, updated on Wednesday, a defense official told Military Times.
“During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying ...” the memo reads.
Military Entrance Processing Command will now accept recruits who have previously tested positive for coronavirus as long as they haven’t been hospitalized, the official confirmed, a clarifying update of what is still interim guidance.
The official, who was not authorized to speak on record about the policy, did not provide any specific definition of hospitalization, which could include layers of severity from an emergency room visit, to supportive care like oxygen and fluids, to intubation for a ventilator to facilitate breathing.
Though the services are testing all new basic trainees for coronavirus upon arrival, there are several layers of screening a recruit goes through before swearing-in, as a matter of practice, the services filter out issues that could affect individual and unit readiness down the line before that point.
MEPCOM is responsible for medical exams to determine fitness for duty, including a detailed medical history that might find any disqualifying illnesses, including physical disqualifiers like heart defects or asthma, as well as behavioral conditions like clinical depression or attention deficit disorder.
With so little research available on the long-term implications of a COVID-19 infection, MEPCOM is erring on the side of caution. Preliminary studies have found significant lung damage in COVID-19 patients, which could affect fitness for combat in a service member. There are also questions as to whether the antibodies provide any protection against re-infection, or if one bout with coronavirus could make a person more susceptible to another.
While a COVID-19 diagnoses might prevent someone from joining the military, it won’t have an affect on currently serving troops, including those who have been part of the outbreaks on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and destroyer Kidd.
Enlistment and re-enlistment standards vary significantly, as troops are routinely first diagnosed with medical or behavioral issues after they’ve been in uniform, including service-connected conditions and injuries that do not prevent reenlistment or require involuntary separation.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.