WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – More than 20,000 US service members have contracted the coronavirus, and the infection rate in the services has tripled over the past six weeks as the US military has emerged as a potential source of transmission both domestically and abroad, according to military and local public health officials.
Cases are rising the most on military bases in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas, states that have all seen surges in confirmed infections.
At a base in Okinawa, Japan, the US Marine Corps has reported nearly 100 cases, enraging local officials.
And in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, already awash with unreported cases, US troops have contended with outbreaks within their ranks.
In South Korea, where General Robert Abrams was praised early in the pandemic for taking aggressive steps to rein in the virus, US Forces Korea has 98 positive cases, which appear to have been brought from the United States, Gen Abrams has confirmed.
Domestically, local officials in Chattahoochee County, Georgia, a sparsely populated area with high infection rates, traced the outbreaks to Fort Benning, the large training base there. And officials in California and North Carolina have also seen connections between military installations and local communities.
The rise of cases among a largely young population that lives in dense quarters near cities where bars and other crowded places have been reopened is unsurprising.
But the increase in coronavirus cases – especially overseas – raises questions about the military’s safety precautions as the Pentagon wrestles with both containing the virus within the ranks and addressing the logistical problems it has created, like relieving units that had been stuck overseas for longer than expected.
“It’s an amazing challenge,” said Dr Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.
“With our inability to control the virus nationally, I think we’re going to see countries that may not welcome deployments of American troops for anything but the most essential missions.”
In many ways, the surge in military cases mirrors the situation in the rest of the United States: exhausted by months of lockdown and trying to get back to normal.
There were 21,909 cases in the military as of Monday, compared with 7,408 on June 10, according to the Pentagon.
Three service members have died since March, including a sailor on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. More than 440 service members have been hospitalised.
In the military training camps, there is little room for a socially distant middle ground. Barracks are packed, gruelling training schools are the norm, and open bars and other places to socialise beckon, all as troops prepare to head overseas.
“Military bases represent a combustible demographic mix of young and older people in a dense institutional setting, which is pretty much an ideal context for a wildfirelike outbreak to occur,” said health policy researcher and clinical professor Lindsey Leininger of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
“Unfortunately, both density and demographics place military bases at high outbreak risk. And since many employees on the bases are from the host communities, a base outbreak can easily seed a community outbreak.”
In a recent conference call with reporters, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy noted sharp increases in cases at Fort Benning and at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, both large infantry training schools, and acknowledged that the Army might be paying for reopening its basic training sites too early or without adequate protections.
Mr McCarthy said the Army was weighing whether to change its testing protocols, expand the 14-day isolation bubble for deploying troops before they are sent overseas or increase the frequency of coronavirus testing.
“This is something that we take very, very seriously,” Mr Abrams said on a radio programme on American Forces Network Korea.
As the only nation that projects military power in dozens of countries all over the world – some of which are banning American travellers – the United States has many opportunities to export an unchecked virus, as well as possibilities to facilitate domestic spread in areas that are already overwhelmed with new cases.
This was clear in Okinawa, one of Japan’s southern-most islands that is home to several US bases.
Over several weeks in June, several thousand Marines deployed to Okinawa, delayed by Pentagon travel restrictions that have since been eased.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s decision to restrict, then loosen, military travel by the end of June served two purposes: It was an attempt to both keep the virus from the ranks and to minimise disruptions to long-planned deployment schedules.
A Marine helicopter and infantry unit from California is believed to have brought new cases of the virus to Okinawa, according to a Marine familiar with the issue who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Covid-19 rapidly spread in the unit in June and was most likely accelerated through a series of unauthorised parties around the Fourth of July weekend, the Marine said.
“As I suspect you are all aware, based on the tracing teams, Marines and sailors who contracted Covid likely broke” restrictions placed on their movements, military commanders in Okinawa wrote to Marines several days after the holiday in a message obtained by The New York Times.
The commanders warned the service members to adhere to the restrictions and said that they were “under the microscope”.
In South Korea, more than 70 people affiliated with US Forces Korea have tested positive for the virus since the first outbreak in the country in late February.
The military says that troops are following strict quarantine procedures after being tested; health officials in South Korea, which was successful in beating back coronavirus early on, say that most new cases are coming from abroad.
In Australia, where more than 1,000 Marines recently started their annual months-long deployment in Darwin, at least one Marine was found to have the virus, according to a Marine news release this month.
The Bitburg-Prüm region, home to Spangdahlem Air Base, has one of the highest rates of infection in Germany, although cases on the base appear to be abating.
Chattahoochee County, Georgia, has seen its per capita infection rate nearly double over the past two weeks.
“Of course there is community spread on the base,” Ms Pamela Kirkland, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Health’s West Central Health District, said of Fort Benning.
“Many live off base and could be reported in several counties in Georgia and Alabama.”
She added, “We did see quite an increase in what was otherwise a typical smaller number of cases for a low-populated county.”
Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, one of the biggest Army bases and home to Special Operations units and training schools, also had a large outbreak, and surrounding counties have also been affected.
More than 80 soldiers tested positive for the virus last month after a weeks-long survival course, known as SERE school.
“There is evidence of community spread in North Carolina and in Cumberland County,” said Dr Jennifer Green, the county’s public health director.
“Fort Bragg is a part of our Cumberland County community.”