More military bases increase health protections due to virus

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at Whiteman Air Force Base, Wednesday, July, 22, 2020  in Johnson County, Missouri. Esper is standing in front of a B-2 stealth bomber in a hangar at Whiteman. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at Whiteman Air Force Base, Wednesday, July, 22, 2020 in Johnson County, Missouri. Esper is standing in front of a B-2 stealth bomber in a hangar at Whiteman. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military has increased health protection requirements in at least 21 bases in recent weeks, particularly across Texas and Florida, as the COVID-19 rate continues to spike among service members, more than doubling in the last month.

The escalating numbers mirror the increase in coronavirus cases in the general public across the country, where more than 4 million people have contracted the virus, and more than 144,000 have died. The military, however, still has a dramatically low death rate, losing three service members — including just one active-duty — out of nearly 23,000 virus cases so far.

The moves to higher alert levels at the defense installations are somewhat limited because the military as a whole has been much slower to loosen pandemic restrictions than cities and states around the country, particularly sections of the South and West facing record infection levels.

That more cautious approach has endured despite President Donald Trump repeatedly urging businesses to reopen and the country to get back to normal to ease economic woes. Trump has also pressed for schools to go back to in-person classes in the fall, threatening to link federal funding to reopenings. That plan has little support in Congress, and has been widely opposed by parents and teachers.

“I find that each base does things a little bit different, and they’ve adapted very carefully,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said when he traveled to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri this week. The base is home to the B-2 bomber fleet, and Esper's trip was part of an effort to check on how the military’s strategic nuclear forces are coping with the pandemic.

Defense leaders say the recent spike has not affected the military’s ability to train or respond when needed. It will, however, affect decisions on whether Defense Department schools will have in-person classes or not. Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, told reporters this week that bases at the most restrictive levels will likely have virtual learning.

According to data obtained by The Associated Press, more than 45% of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps installations around the globe are currently at what is called “health condition Charlie,” which involves “substantial risk” of “sustained community transmission” of the virus. A significant number of those bases are spread across the South and West and have stayed at or gone back to level C. That's one step below the most restrictive level, on a scale that goes from Zero to Level D — Severe.

Under level C, base access and travel is significantly restricted, in-person gatherings such as school and other activities are likely cancelled, and more people must work from home. Service members are told to prepare for “limited access” to supplies and services. Under level B, social distancing and other health procedures are still recommended, but more movement, travel and in-person gatherings are allowed. Service members are told to avoid “unnecessary travel,” particularly to virus hot zones.