With the deputy chiefs of two services testing positive for COVID-19 and many members of the Joint Staff quarantining at home in case of exposure, the head of the Defense Health Agency told Military Times on Thursday that the Defense Department’s health system is ready with therapeutics to treat any serious infections.
While neither Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas nor Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray have been hospitalized, DHA director Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place said that the military health system has access to the most advanced treatments available, including some of the same medications given to President Donald Trump during his recent stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“We have therapies that either we hold licenses to, or we have use under emergency-use authorizations,” Place said. “The most common of those involve the use of steroids ― dexamethasone is a good example of it ― COVID convalescent plasma ― so the blood plasma of those who have recovered from a prior COVID infection ― and Remdesivir.”
Trump received all three therapies during his weekend hospital stay, later announcing via Twitter he felt well enough to go home on Monday evening.
The military health system also has access to drugs in development, either by requesting them or via suggestions from the makers themselves.
DoD has traced Ray’s and Thomas’s possible exposure back to a meeting in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' office on Friday. Following Ray’s diagnosis Monday, all who have been in close contact with those who attended that meeting have been in quarantine, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“The Marine Corps is following established policies for COVID, per CDC guidelines, to include quarantine and contact tracing,” according to a Wednesday statement. “According to CDC guidelines, any Marine Corps personnel who were in close contact with the general will also quarantine.”
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement Wednesday that no other senior leaders have tested positive.
The previous Sunday, Ray and dozens of other officials had attended a White House event for Gold Star families, where physical distancing and masks were not enforced, as seen in photos of the event.
That same weekend, an outdoor event announcing the president’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, held in the Rose Garden without masks or distancing requirements.
Both events have been held up as possible super-spreader opportunities, as dozens of people connected to those events ― including White House staff, press corps reporters and members of Congress ― have since tested positive.
“Absent almost total isolation, there’s not a great way for us to totally prevent spread,” Place told reporters Thursday, though senior military officials have been careful about following risk mitigation measures.
“From the available data that I have, the senior-most leaders of the department are following and have followed the protocols to keep themselves safe and their staffs safe,” he said.
Since March, the Pentagon’s policy has been to require a mask when six feet of physical distance is not possible, at a bare minimum. However, many staff have opted to keep masks on whenever gathering indoors, regardless of space.
Early on, Place added, many high-level Pentagon meetings were conducted over secure video call, with larger groups spread out over more than one conference room. But as the efficacy of masks, disinfection and physical distance became apparent, he said, meetings around conference tables became more common.
“I think the factors that we’re talking about are all about lowering risk, not eliminating risk,” adding that the Joint Chiefs have been “role models” when it comes to wearing masks and keeping their distance.
“All of those senior leaders understand that there was some risk in being all in a room together,” he said.
At the White House, however, masks were not required, and photographs show that those attending that Gold Star event did not rock the boat.
On Thursday, in an interview with Fox News, Trump mused that perhaps he picked up the coronavirus there, hugging, “kissing” and having close-quarters conversations with the family members of fallen troops.
“And I went through like 35 people, and everyone has a different story … They come within an inch of my face sometimes, they want to hug me and they want to kiss me. And they do," he said. "And frankly, I’m not telling them to back up. I’m not doing it, but obviously it’s a dangerous thing, I guess, if you go by the COVID thing.”
To their knowledge, none of the Gold Star families who attended the event have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, told Military Times on Thursday.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.