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COVID-19 made military recruiting harder. Now past cases may disqualify recruits

The Pentagon in Arlington county, Va. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The Department of Defense has issued new guidelines that would disqualify anyone who previously had COVID-19 from joining the military, according to a new memo.

The U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, in a memo issued last week, said that “during the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying.”

A defense official, who spoke to McClatchy on the condition of not being identified, confirmed the authenticity of the memo, first reported by Military Times, and said it is interim guidance.

The official said the new policy would not necessarily disqualify a potential recruit, but would force an additional review where the recruit would need to get a waiver to move forward with the enlistment.

The new policy would mean a past coronavirus exposure would be treated the same as other medical conditions, such as hearing loss, “that are considered ‘permanently disqualifying,’ subject to a medical waiver,” the official said.

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But the new policy comes as military recruiters are already facing challenges as COVID-19 has closed the high schools, malls and job fairs where they typically meet prospects.

Most of the military services told McClatchy they have seen shortfalls in recruiting since the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, every service told McClatchy they do not anticipate being at full strength in terms of the number of forces they require by the end of the year .

More than 1.2 million Americans have tested positive for the virus and 72,617 have died as of May 6, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Nelson Lim, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corp. who has researched military personnel policy for more than two decades, said it was too early to determine the impact of the new policy, because there is still much that is unknown about the accuracy of antibody testing and immunity with COVID-19.

“We don’t have good estimates on the younger population,” and the virus impact, Lim said. “Testing is essentially limited to people with symptoms or high risk. So it is difficult to get a clear picture of the impact of this decision.”

It was unclear whether the interim Pentagon policy would eventually extend to currently serving forces who have been ill from the coronavirus while on duty. More than 5,000 military personnel have been infected with COVID-19, almost 1,900 of whom have recovered.

A request for comment to the Defense Department on the impact of the policy on recruiting, and whether it would extend to currently serving forces who re-enlist, was not immediately answered.

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© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.