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Army post in NC testing for coronavirus among service members, families

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chariman Army Gen. Mark A. Milley talk to reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. [Lisa Ferdinando/Department of Defense/TNS)

Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg is testing for coronavirus for service members and families on post and two other major military installations in the state, officials said.

Fort Bragg is the largest military installation in the U.S. and home to the 82nd Airborne Division and special operations forces, with service members deployed around the world.

Army, Air Force and Marine installations in the Carolinas are monitoring any possible coronavirus threats. U.S. Forces Korea has reported six confirmed cases of coronavirus.

A spokeswoman at Womack Army Medical Center said it has a partnership with Pope Army Airfield, which is also at Fort Bragg, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro and Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in Jacksonville.

Womack isn’t saying how many tests are available. The Army hospital has procedures for providers to determine whether testing is needed for a patient.

“If we reach our capacity for the amount of tests, we can always send tests to the state lab,” the spokeswoman, Shannon Lynch, said.

North Carolina has one confirmed case of the virus in the Raleigh area.

In addition to the active-duty soldier in Korea, other confirmed cases in Korea are the person’s spouse, a 61-year-old dependent, a Department of Defense civilian contractor, another service member’s dependent and a Department of Defense employee’s dependent.

During a news conference Monday, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the overall broad impact of the virus to American service members is low.

“It’s not to say it’s zero, but it’s very, very minimal,” Milley said, crediting a young, healthy demographic that is up to date with immunizations. “Very few cases have been diagnosed, etc.”

Installations in the Carolinas are following Department of Defense guidelines, officials said.

“In general, we’re looking to higher headquarters for guidance,” said Crystal Smith, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

During Monday’s news conference, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said commanders of individually affected geographic commands “have all the authority they need” and will be provided guidance for troops as the situation continues to evolve.

That means commanders are directed to take all health protection measures and notify the chain of command so the Department of Defense can inform all appropriate authorities and the American people, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, said Tuesday.

Esper said Thursday his three priorities are to protect service members and their families, safeguard mission capabilities and support multiple agencies. The Pentagon and other installations are completing plans for prevention and mitigation measures, if someone tested positive or displayed coronavirus symptoms there, he said.

He credited Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, for establishing “a good model to protect the forces.”

Esper said wiping down door knobs and copy machines and changing social interactions are examples of what can be done to prevent the spread of the virus.

“But we’ve also got to look at travel — there’s a number of things,” Esper said. “Those will be coming up to me next week, and we should, I hope by the end of next week, start putting in some measures to address prevention, and then, of course, part of that plan will address mitigation.”

At Cherry Point, Smith said officials are encouraging service members to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines related to hygiene and washing hands.

She said a discussion about coronavirus was scheduled this week with leaders at Cherry Point to ensure everyone is up to date on response plans if there were an immediate threat.

“The safety and health of our service members, civilian workforce and families is at the forefront,” Smith said.

Officials at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base also said they are encouraging service members, employees and family members to follow CDC guidelines.

Ashley Snipes, a spokeswoman for the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson, said officials at the base are working with local governments to monitor the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Snipes echoed Esper’s comments, saying airmen across the globe and commanders in geographically affected areas are taking steps to educate and safeguard service members, civilian personnel and families to prevent widespread outbreak.

“Military health officials are encouraging service members and families to stay informed and take a common-sense approach to minimizing the chances of getting sick,” she said.

In the States, Milley said preparations are being made to protect installations, and there are capabilities to support the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’ve got lots of capabilities, medical capabilities, housing, and so on and so forth that if required and directed by the secretary of defense, we’ll do our part, “Milley said.

Milley said military research labs are working to develop a vaccine.

Based on prior benchmarks to developing cures for other infectious diseases, a vaccine is not expected to be developed sooner than a year to 18 months, military medical leaders said at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Army researchers working to develop a candidate for the vaccine have studied severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both coronavirus strains, said Army Brig. Gen. Michael J. Talley, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.

Walter Reed Medical Center medical leaders developed one of the first human-phase trials for a MERS vaccine, Talley said.

The latest research does not duplicate efforts by the National Institutes of Health, which is also working to develop a vaccine, said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of emerging infectious diseases at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Modjarrad said a vaccine candidate is being studied in mice to evaluate immune systems, which is a first phase.

A second phase would be looking at the vaccine in larger animals, before it is evaluated in humans, he said.

Once introduced to humans, the safety of the vaccine and the immune response would be evaluated, Modjarrad said.

Another phase would be introducing the vaccine to a larger population, which would then evaluate if it protects against infection.

At Seymour Johnson’s military treatment facility, Snipes said a screening protocol is implemented for patients reporting or exhibiting respiratory symptoms.

Patients with a travel history and symptoms of the coronavirus will be diverted to the nearest emergency room.

Coronavirus testing at that base is being completed by either the state laboratory or by Womack Army Medical Center, Snipes said.

Snipes said the base’s public health team and medical contingency response teams train throughout the year to respond to disease outbreak, which is in accordance with the base’s disease containment plan.

The installation’s public health team is also collaborating with the state Department of Public Health and Womack Army Medical Center for additional training opportunities related to coronavirus response.


© 2020 The Columbus Dispatch