Some US troops complain social distancing, quarantines not being applied correctly

Esper's reaction was described as "we can do better and we need to do better."

March 19, 2020, 6:05 PM

The Pentagon was one of the first government agencies to put in place "social distancing" and quarantine requirements to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, but local commanders may not be getting the message as some service members are saying that they don't feel safe.

In recent weeks health care professionals have stressed to Americans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that one way to prevent the spread of the virus is to use social distancing to keep individuals to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper began using social distancing in his regular staff meetings on March 9. But it appears Esper's example is not being applied correctly or consistently in some military units.

When the first of two sailors about the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer tested positive for the virus this past weekend, dozens of the ship's senior enlisted sailors and officers were gathered to hear about social distancing.

But a sailor told ProPublica that instead of meeting in an outdoor location where the 80 sailors could maintain a 6-foot separation, they spent 30 minutes in an indoor room, separated by 2 to 4 feet, much less than the distance recommended by the CDC.

PHOTO: \Sailors aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) take the navy-wide E-5 advancement exam.
Sailors aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) take the Navy-wide E-5 advancement exam on March 12, 2020 in the mess decks. The ship is at its homeport in San Diego.
Jessica Hattell/US Navy

"Definitely not enough room to maintain appropriate distance," the unidentified sailor told ProPublica. "People are wondering why we gathered in a room contradictory to CDC guidance."

A Navy spokesman confirmed the meeting to ProPublica but would not comment on whether it violated the CDC's guidelines.

In a statement, the spokesman said that Navy commanders have been told "to the largest extent possible to implement social distancing," including avoiding large gatherings and maintaining a 6-foot space from other sailors when possible.

There are now at least four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among sailors assigned to Navy ships. However, each of those ships is currently in port in either California or Washington.

There are no confirmed cases among sailors on ships that are underway -- ships the Navy Surgeon General referred to on Thursday as "self-quarantined ... units."

Because there is not yet a way for sailors to be tested for COVID-19 while at sea, tests are sent to nearby DOD labs around the world. During that time, the sailor being tested lives isolated in separate quarters.

Additionally, the Navy screens any individual boarding a ship, and the ships themselves are mandated to spend at least 14 days at sea between port calls.

Under additional rules implemented by the Pentagon last week, service members returning from elevated-risk areas should self-quarantine for 14 days, but some soldiers returning from Afghanistan report having a different experience.

A soldier texted the Daily Beast to say that he and fellow soldiers were being quarantined at Fort Bliss, Texas, in group settings. Unlike cruise ship passengers who were being quarantined in individual quarters, the soldier said he was sharing a room with two other soldiers.

The soldier said they are not allowed to leave their quarters at all and though they are not being tested for the virus, medics stop by once a day to take the service members' temperatures.

PHOTO: Soldiers stationed on U.S. Army Garrison Casey conduct pre-screening processes on individuals awaiting entry to the base, USAG-Casey, Dongducheon, Republic of Korea, Feb. 26, 2020.
Soldiers stationed on U.S. Army Garrison Casey conduct pre-screening processes on individuals awaiting entry to the base, USAG-Casey, Dongducheon, Republic of Korea, Feb. 26, 2020.
Amber I. Smith/US Army

The Pentagon's top spokesman told reporters Thursday that Esper had been made aware of the situation at Fort Bliss. He described Esper's reaction as "we can do better and we need to do better."

The commander at Fort Bliss spoke with the quarantined soldiers and addressed their concerns.

"They're looking to make some changes such as setting up for more time for people to be outside of the rooms and being able to travel around," said Hoffman.

He added that similar quarantine situations at other bases would also be addressed.

"We appreciate the members who are either affected by this outbreak, either through the infections, their families' infections and even these individuals who are being quarantined," said Hoffman. "We owe it to them and we're going to look into it and try to do better."

ABC News' Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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