The number of active-duty military personnel infected with the novel coronavirus has more than doubled in the last three weeks, according to new figures published by the Defense Department.
As of Wednesday, 6,493 US service members had the virus, up from 2,807 on June 10. And in the last two weeks alone, the number of cases in the Air Force has almost doubled. On June 15, there were 700 reported cases, but by Monday that had jumped to 1,366.
The rise in cases comes as at least 19 states have paused or rolled back their reopening plans in response to a surge in new infections. According to a Johns Hopkins University’s tally, there have been at least 2.6 million cases of coronavirus in the US, with at least 127,675 deaths, as of Wednesday evening.
Defense officials say the “uptick” in cases at military installations has happened “largely around where we are seeing it in the civilian communities, so in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona, some parts of California,” according to Thomas McCaffrey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
The Air Force in particular is seeing a “hot spot” in San Antonio, where Lackland Air Force Base is located, according to an Air Force official. There is also concern about several Air Force installations in Florida, the official said.
Still, McCaffrey noted the uptick includes asymptomatic cases and that hospitalization rates remain low. He also claimed the increase may be in part a result of more testing.
“Right now our focus is on looking at the data we have with regard to our particular installations and health facilities in those areas where there are hot spots in the community and making determinations based on what’s happening on the ground,” he said.
The Pentagon is looking at data to see if the uptick at those installations might be attributable to interactions between members of the military and communities where there have been large increases in cases.
At least seven Air Force bases have tightened restrictions in the last week. At the Air Force Global Strike Command headquarters in Barksdale, Louisiana – which oversees the long-range bomber fleet – Gen. Timothy Ray ordered all military and civilian personnel to wear masks in any public spaces where social distancing is not possible.
That goes beyond previous suggested guidance, the Air Force official said.
US military leaders are also warning against “quarantine fatigue.” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville laid out the message clearly in a letter to Army commanders last week.
“I am sending you this message to remind you that we must STAY VIGILANT and not lose the progress we have made in flattening the curve and reducing the spread of COVID-19,” he wrote.
He noted that as stay-at-home orders and businesses reopen across the globe, “we also see reports of quarantine fatigue. Many people are relaxing their standards on social distancing, wearing face coverings and following other COVID-19 tips.”
He noted that in the Army there have been recent “upticks” in the rates of cases at Fort Benning and Fort Jackson.
Beyond keeping the military functioning, the rising cases within the armed services underscore the unique threat the virus poses to US national security.
One of the clearest indicators of the level of concern within the Pentagon is that Defense Secretary Mark Esper has put strict limits on the amount of information being shared with the American public.
While it does publish information regularly on the number of personnel who have tested positive for the virus, the military is not releasing information that it believes would reveal weaknesses in US readiness that could exploited by adversaries.
“The Department of Defense will continue to balance transparency in this crisis with operations security,” the Pentagon said in a policy statement on its website.