How Is Covid-19 Impacting The Preparedness Of The US Military?

The outbreak of Covid-19 on the aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the isolation of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October highlight an often-overlooked consequence of this pandemic. Despite these clear indications that members of the armed forces are susceptible to Covid-19, there is a troubling lack of information on the virus’ impact on our military’s preparedness of forces at air, land, and sea.

Transitions between Presidents already pose an increased risk to national security. With Donald Trump still actively trying to change the results of an election he lost, this transition is shaping up to be potentially the toughest transition of power in our nation’s history. This makes knowing whether the coronavirus has impacted our nation’s military’s ability to defend the country even more important.

Yet, the only recent information that we have on the impact of Covid-19 on our armed forces is a laudatory photo-article about successful prevention measures implemented at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego published by the New York Times. While it is true that at this one Marine Corps installation there are no known Covid-19 cases, the article paints far too rosy a picture of what is actually happening in our military. At another Marine Recruit Depot, in Parris Island, South Carolina, twenty-four recruits tested positive on day seven of a two-week supervised quarantine on a college campus, and eleven tested positive on day fourteen. Researchers found that spread had occurred within platoons, even though all training activities occurred outside. Why two recruit depots, within the same branch of the military, have had different levels of success with Covid-19 control is unclear. 

Outside of these two Marine recruit depots, the numbers of infections in our military suggests they are keeping the rate of infection within its ranks slightly lower than that of America as a whole. As of November 23, there were 74,992 infections out of a total of 2,191,000 active and reserve military, or 2,387 cases per 100,000. Across the United States as a whole, there are 3,747 cases per 100,000 people. Some defense experts have noted that while the military has a lower infection rate than society overall, “the profile of military cases has nevertheless closely tracked the profile of cases in the U.S. population.” While they are doing better than the country at a large, perhaps a result of the military’s experience fighting infectious diseases for decades and its position as a leader in sanitation and infection control, they are still far from having the spread of disease under control.

Much of the praise surrounding the military’s handling of the coronavirus has come from its low death rate. The death rate among the military is 0.14 per 1,000 people compared to 21.4 per 1,000 people in the general population, or 145 times lower. As of November 18th, 10 members of the armed forces have died of Covid-19. However, this is an unfair comparison given the young age distribution of those in the military and the fact that they are a much healthier group to begin with. The average age of an enlisted member is 27 years old and the average age of an officer is 35 years old. Also, members of the military have access to high quality healthcare that should be provided to all Americans but unfortunately is not. 

Back in March, the outbreak of coronavirus on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, provided some of the strongest evidence at the time that the virus can be spread by those without symptoms. On an aircraft carrier with 4,779 personnel, a total of 1,271 crew members became infected with the coronavirus. 43% of the individuals who were infected never had symptoms of Covid-19.

Months later, in October, after being exposed to the vice Commandant of the Coast Guard who tested positive for Covid-19, almost all the Joint Chiefs of Staff quarantined. This included General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

After the announcement that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were quarantining, White House officials told the Department of Defense that they should not inform the public or the media about the status of coronavirus of Pentagon leaders. While the Department of Defense has questioned this direction, there is still far too much that we do not know about how Covid-19 is affecting our military’s readiness to defend the country. 

The only information that we have received about Covid-19 and the military has assured the public that they have the situation well in hand. Though they may be doing better than the country at large, they are far from containing Covid-19. Given the high infection rates and the fact that soldiers are vital to our national defense, it is reasonable to discuss publicly whether the military should be among the first to receive the vaccine that might be mere weeks away.

As the coronavirus situation in the US has gone from bad to worse, with little hope of any semblance of a national strategy for at least another two months when President-elect Biden takes the oath of office, we must ask serious questions about what is happening in our military. We need the military to be more forthcoming about how it is controlling the coronavirus within its ranks. If there are problems, what can we do to address them? Especially during this tenuous time in our country’s democracy, the public needs assurances that the coronavirus has not hindered our military’s ability to protect us.

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Originally published on Forbes (November 20, 2020)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.