Early Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports are that the elderly and adults with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk of developing COVID-19, the official name for the illness caused by this latest strain of coronavirus. That largely doesn’t include service members, Joint Staff Surgeon Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs told reporters Wednesday.
Most service members are young, and by virtue of the fact that they’re considered fit to serve, by definition not immunocompromised.
“What we’re trying very hard to do is not scare people by saying everybody is at risk, because that’s not true,” Friedrichs said. “It’s just not true.”
Since coronavirus began spreading late last year, one service member and his spouse have been diagnosed. The widow of a retired soldier and two other DoD dependents ― all living in Daegu, South Korea ― have also been diagnosed, out of more than 80,000 cases worldwide.
“Those are small numbers," Friedrichs said. "And I don’t want to seem like I’m being a Pollyanna here and saying everything is rosy, but really, the numbers within the DoD that we are treating are very small, and they’re all getting the care that they need based on the CDC guidelines.”
While health professionals and government agencies are still learning more about the virus, how it spreads and how deadly it is, Friedrichs said, there are some hard-and-fast criteria for people whose immune systems aren’t 100 percent.
“If they’re someone who routinely gets sick before anybody else, then we definitely want to make sure that we’re aware of that,” he said.
Someone undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment would also be at a much higher risk.
“If they’re already sick,” Friedrichs added. “If they’ve recently had an illness and they’re recovering from that, then they may get another illness, because their immune system is focusing on their immediate illness that they’re recovering from right now.”
As far as specific conditions, whether it’s asthma or chronic pulmonary disease, he added, that research is evolving.
“We’re still learning which groups are at most risk,” he said. “What we’re just not seeing is people under the age of 20 really getting sick with this, regardless of what else they have.”
It’s also likely that there are asymptomatic carriers unwittingly spreading the virus, he said, because not everyone who has tested positive worldwide has shown symptoms.
Officials could not confirm the number of of coronavirus tests so far administered to troops, their families or DoD civilians, nor did they have numbers readily available on false positives.
It is protocol, Friedrichs said, to run a second test on any positives and send those kits to the CDC in Atlanta for confirmation.
Limiting the spread
While coronavirus has been very localized in the military community, the services are taking precautions to screen every new recruit before they set foot on an installation.
The Army began using a series of questions and taking the temperatures of its newest basic trainees on Tuesday, with instructions to isolate anyone who is showing symptoms, has had contact with a high-risk population or is running a fever over 99.5.
The Navy began a similar process in January, according to a spokesman.
“Any recruit identified as having symptoms or having traveled overseas to certain regions in the last 14 days would be addressed by medical personnel for follow-on assessment and treatment,” Lt. Samuel Boyle told Military Times on Wednesday.
The Marine Corps is also screening at its recruit depots, according spokesman Capt, Christopher Harrison.
While the Air Force is not specifically screening at its basic training units, it is leaning on its recruiters and staff at Military Entrance Processing Stations to catch any symptoms or particular risks.
“Members at MEPS have virus protocol procedures to observe and take temperatures of all individuals entering MEPS facilities,” according to Jennifer Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command Spokesperson. recruiters also complete a medical pre-screen on all applicants that covers all medical concerns, to include COVID-19."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.
Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.