Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… with the arrival of news that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has tested positive for COVID 19, this week we will be looking at 1) Austin’s remarks on his COVID status, 2) how the coronavirus has remained a challenge to U.S. national security since the pandemic began, and 3) how the Pentagon had been quietly working to increase its response to COVID concerns even in the days leading up to Austin contracting the virus.
In video news from The Debrief, be sure to check in for the latest weekly recap of news stories with Cristina Gomez over on The Debrief’s official YouTube Channel. And as always, we’ll have a complete roundup of our most recent stories at the end of this newsletter so you can stay up to date on the latest science, tech, and defense stories curated especially for the rebelliously curious.
Now, we shift our focus over to the alarming news the Pentagon was faced with in recent days, as the United States military continues its own unique battle against the global coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Contracts COVID 19
“I tested positive this morning for COVID-19,” Austin said in an official statement published at the DoD website on January 2. Austin stated that a test was administered at his request “after exhibiting symptoms while at home on leave.”
Austin said that although his symptoms are mild, he is following advice from his physicians, and is currently quarantining at his home.
“Stemming the spread of this virus, safeguarding our workforce and ensuring my own speedy and safe recovery remain my priorities,” Austin said, adding that he plans to continue attending meetings remotely while in quarantine.
“I will retain all authorities,” Austin said. “Deputy Secretary Hicks will represent me as appropriate in other matters.”
COVID 19: Still a National Security Concern
Austin’s announcement of having contracted COVID 19 over the holiday illustrates the ongoing concern that the current global pandemic poses to the United States military, underscoring how it has impacted national security since its arrival in the U.S. in early 2020.
Last August, the Pentagon reported having sustained its deadliest week throughout the entire pandemic, with the deaths of five service members within a one-week period raising the number of COVID-related military deaths from 29 up to 34. The DoD also recorded a total of 4,156 new infections among U.S. troops during that period.
Following news of Austin’s positive test on January 2, officials began contract tracing and administering tests to all personnel with whom Austin had contact in the days prior to his announcement. Fortunately, considering the holiday schedule, Austin had not had any interactions with the President after December 21.
“My last meeting with President Biden occurred on Tuesday, December 21st, more than a week before I began to experience symptoms,” Austin said in his statement. “I tested negative that very morning.
Austin, who had been fully vaccinated and boosted prior to contracting COVID 19, says that it helped ensure a relatively mild infection, although his positive test raises additional concerns about the spread of the coronavirus among members of the U.S. military, and even those who, like Austin, are fully vaccinated.
“The vaccines work,” Austin said, “and will remain a military medical requirement for our workforce. I continue to encourage everyone eligible for a booster shot to get one. This remains a readiness issue.”
The Pentagon’s Efforts to Combat COVID 19
Only days prior to Austin’s announcement that he had contracted COVID 19, a Pentagon release outlined two recent updates it had issued in its ongoing efforts to prevent safety issues presented by the coronavirus.
The first of the pair of memos, titled “Tools to Mitigate the Threat of the Omicron Variant of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in the Department of Defense”, details the current tools the DoD has at its disposal to combat the threat of COVID 19, with specific emphasis on the new Omicron variant that first appeared in the U.S. late last year, following its detection by health care specialists in South Africa.
“While the Omicron variant’s characteristics may differ from other variants, the tools referenced within the memo have successfully been used throughout the pandemic,” a December 30 DoD release stated. Among the tools it references are the use of masks, social distancing, teleworking, and the implementation of COVID 19 tests and vaccines.
“These tools remain effective and must be continuously implemented,” the release stated, adding that Health Protection Condition (HPCON) levels may be rapidly raised if infections begin to rise due to the Omicron variant.
The other memo, “Updated Force Health Protection Guidance (Supplement 15) Revision 3 – Department of Defense Guidance for Coronavirus Disease 2019 Laboratory Testing Services,” is a revision that updates previous lab testing guidance issued by the DoD, along with the Pentagon’s surveillance strategy regarding pandemic response.
The updated memorandums were issued just 48 hours after the publication of a listing of new procedureswhich extend beyond the main Pentagon complex to all roads or walkways, waterways, parking areas, and other locales, collectively called the Pentagon Reservation. According to the new procedures announced by the DoD on December 28, Pentagon staff were encouraging telework where permitted until the end of January. This, in addition to a range of stipulations that include limiting official visits to minimum requirements and suspending all other visits until February 1, 2022, and other procedures aimed at reducing overall occupancy within the Pentagon complex.
Even with the DoD’s updated precautionary measures to limit the spread of COVID 19, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s positive COVID status serves as a reminder to the United States military that one of the greatest national security concerns it faces remains here on the homeland, and heading into 2022, it will remain a primary concern for the DoD and its operations here and abroad.