WASHINGTON, March 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the Army’s top general in Europe, said his Italian and Polish counterparts showed no signs of the coronavirus when they met at a conference in Germany just over a week ago.
“Nobody was showing symptoms of anything,” Cavoli told Reuters of the March 6 gathering. “Everything was fine.”
Then they tested positive.
In his first interview from self-isolation, Cavoli detailed how he has been demonstrating the safety measures he expects his soldiers to follow across Europe, which the World Health Organization says is now the pandemic’s global epicenter.
“If you come into contact with somebody who turns out to be COVID positive ... then you go in to self-isolation,” Cavoli said, adding he had carved out a “clean enclave” for himself in and around his residence in Germany.
Cavoli, who says he is in good health, is the highest ranking official known to be in self-isolation so far.
His case is just one example of how the U.S. military is upending protocols around the world, shuttering base facilities, from movie theaters to cafeteria tables where troops might congregate, and canceling military drills.
Unlike civilian leaders, who must ask the population to avoid large gatherings, U.S. military commanders have the ability to order their forces to change their lifestyles - and fast.
The commander overseeing the 28,500 or so U.S. troops in hard-hit South Korea, Army General Robert Abrams, said he was treating the coronavirus response like a full-fledged military operation - complete with predictive analysis, regular command briefings and more.
Even his language has the sound of a battlefield update.
“We’ve approached it similarly to how we operate in combat. We apply speed and violence of action on contact,” Abrams told Pentagon reporters flatly.
“This is not an administrative task, this is not a medical task and it’s not a routine event. But it’s an operation.”
Abrams says he believes his operation has been a success: out of a population of 58,000 people that interact with and among U.S. Forces-Korea daily, nine patients have tested positive for coronavirus. Only one is a U.S. servicemember.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.
Still, an increasing number of cases are popping up across the military elsewhere, including one soldier who tested positive in recent days at Cavoli’s headquarters in Germany as well as two servicemembers in Naples, Italy.
On Sunday, the U.S. Navy reported the first positive case of a sailor aboard a warship.
A total of 18 troops worldwide have tested positive for coronavirus, up from four cases a week ago. New cases include ones at Travis Air Force Base in California and Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has started keeping himself and his staff physically separated from his deputy’s team to prevent a spread that might have an impact on Pentagon operations.
The Pentagon has undergone a transformation of sorts. Hallways at one of the world’s biggest office buildings, with as many as 26,000 personnel on a busy day, seem largely empty. Tours were canceled and most visitors denied access. Police tape blocked off access to a number of tables near Pentagon restaurants while buffet stations and soft drink machines had been shuttered.
“All self-service station options are shut down,” a poster on the buffet line said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON and Angelo Amante in Rome: Editing by Howard Goller)