Pentagon issues guidance to troops abroad as coronavirus outbreak spreads

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon issued guidance Friday to U.S. personnel serving abroad as a growing number of countries evacuate their citizens and diplomats from parts of China.

The guidance, aimed at reducing the potential threat of the coronavirus, comes a day after the State Department elevated its travel advisory for China to a Level 4 — meaning U.S. citizens should not travel there.

“I approved a directive apprising our forces about precautions they should take, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the virus,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement. “The Department of Defense continues to work closely with our interagency partners as we monitor the situation and protect our service members and their families, which is my highest priority.”

According to the guidance, if DoD personnel have recently returned from travel to China in the last 14 days or had close contact with someone infected with 2019-nCoV and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, CDC directs these individuals to:

1) seek medical care right away. Before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room, call ahead and tell them about the recent travel and symptoms

2) avoid contact with others

3) not travel while sick

4) cover the mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve (not hands) when coughing or sneezing

5) wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to avoid spreading the virus to others.

Esper added that U.S. military commanders in affected geographic commands will be issuing specific guidance to their forces.

The virus — which has already killed at least 213 people and infected roughly 10,000 people around the world — is emanating from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the largest of all geographic combatant commands.

“We’re aware of the concerns. The safety of our service members, civilian employees, and our citizens both here and abroad is of the utmost concern,” Pentagon spokesman for Indo-Asia Pacific Security Affairs, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, wrote in an emailed statement to CNBC.

Earlier this week the Pentagon said it will provide housing and support for the nearly 200 U.S. citizens and diplomats evacuated from Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus — to the United States.

The government-chartered flight from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport landed at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., on Wednesday. Shortly after the plane landed personnel in biological hazard suits helped passengers load into buses and emergency vehicles on the tarmac.

“Health and Human Services (HHS) is responsible for all care of the evacuees, and DoD personnel will not be directly in contact with the evacuees and evacuees will not have access to any base location other than their assigned housing,” Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah wrote in a Wednesday statement.

“Should routine monitoring of the evacuees identify ill individuals, HHS has procedures in place to transport them to a local civilian hospital. DoD will work closely with our interagency partners and continue to monitor the situation. The Department’s primary responsibility at this time is the safety of our force, our families, and our base communities,” she added.

While the majority of confirmed coronavirus cases are in mainland China, the virus has also been identified in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Nepal, Hong Kong, Macao, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, United States and the United Kingdom.

A Department of Defense official told CNBC that the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, worked alongside Thai counterparts to detect the first coronavirus in that country on Jan. 13.

Thailand, which has the most cases of coronavirus outside of mainland China, sees routine deployments of U.S. personnel under DTRA to bolster biosurveillance, biosecurity and biosafety capabilities.

“These investments enhance regional stability and decrease risk to U.S. interests by building our partner’s capacity to detect and report disease outbreaks of especially dangerous pathogens, and enhance related biosecurity and biosafety capabilities,” the official said.

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