The last week in July showed a sizeable slowdown in the increase of coronavirus cases among service members, from a peak of more than 4,000 cases in one week earlier in the month.
With a total of 27,536 infections as of Friday morning, Defense Department officials have attributed the rapid rise in cases to increased testing and community transmission in states like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, which set records for new numbers of cases throughout the month.
“We’ve not seen any widespread evidence that what’s occurring in the 18-to-24 demographic is because they’re not following the rules,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon said Thursday, announcing that young people in the military were showing a slightly higher infection rate than American young adults.
The services saw a 15-percent rise in cases in the last week, or 3,593 new diagnoses. The leveling off came after July 24′s numbers showed major increases of the rate of new infections in the Air Force (58 percent), Marine Corps (55 percent) and National Guard (41 percent).
Those increases corresponded to surges within states with large numbers of those troops, namely Florida, Texas and California. In addition to local governments relaxing stay-at-home orders in those states, the services have also opened up non-essential travel in Texas, though Florida, Michigan and California remain the only closed states.
Officials have also pointed to increased testing as a reason for so many new cases, particularly in the military’s youngest demographic.
Since late April, 100 percent of new recruits have been tested at some point during initial entry training, as has every service member deploying or redeploying from overseas.
That amounted to 60,000 tests a week by the end of July, though it’s unknown what percentage of those were part of mandatory diagnostics versus those reporting illness.
“We don’t exactly have those specific numbers in terms of what percentage are asymptomatic versus symptomatic,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Lee Payne, who heads up DoD’s coronavirus testing efforts, told Military Times on Thursday, but his team is working to compile them.
The Army continues to have the most cases, though it has seen some of the lowest rates of increase week over week. It’s 9,276 cases as of Friday represented an 18-percent bump in the past seven days, or 1,443 new cases.
The Navy, once thousands of cases ahead of the largest service due to outbreaks on two ships, is sitting at 6,626, with a cluster of positives on the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. The Navy’s 595 new cases this week represent a 10-percent increase, the lowest rate among the services.
The Marine Corps and Air Force continue to surge disproportionately with the two largest services, after cruising through the first several months of the pandemic with significantly lower infection rates than the Army and Navy.
The Marine Corps has 3,257 cases, or 462 this week, for a 17-percent bump. That’s down from 1,025 new cases the previous week. The Air Force, with 4,350 cases, reported 640 new this week, also a 17-percent increase. The previous week, it was 1,317 new cases.
And the National Guard, which has had tens of thousands of its troops activated for COVID-10 pandemic response, as well as hurricane relief and local protest support, saw a 13-percent increase this week, or 428 new cases, for a total of 3,747.
The first 10,000 cases came in between late February early June, followed by the next 10,000 by July 16. With more than 27,000 cases diagnosed so far, the services are on track to hit the 30,000 mark before the end of next week, meaning each successive group of 10,000 has contracted the virus in half the time of the previous group.
During the June-July surge, the military also lost its significantly lower infection rate when compared to the general U.S. population. To date, 1 percent of service members have contracted COVID-19, on par with the rate nationwide.
Despite the higher infection rate, the military’s hospitalizations and deaths have remained low. While there are still more than 14,000 active COVID-19 cases among troops, fewer than 500 have been hospitalized overall and the death toll has held at three since June.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.