With coronavirus spreading, the US military is dealing with a social-distancing problem


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Amid the national effort to respond to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the US military has stepped up to assist as it works to protect its own personnel from the rapid spread of the disease.

Military leaders have scrambled to alter the force’s behavior to insulate their troops, but the nature of the military, that of a massed force working in close quarters, is a limitation on those efforts.

The White House and the Centers for Disease Control have promoted social distancing as a way to halt the spread of the disease, which is thought to be mainly between people within 6 feet of each other. Senior leaders and commanders have said they’re embracing those tactics.

“We are altering exercises, training, and our current day-to-day operations to ensure safety for all,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters Friday, saying that as of 7 p.m. on Thursday the Army had 45 coronavirus cases, including 21 soldiers.

The Army “is a people organization,” used to eating and working out together, McCarthy said, but “to prevent the spread of the virus, we must adhere to the social distancing guidelines of the CDC, such as quarantining and hand-washing.”

US European Command has “approximately 72,000 US uniformed military members, and at this very moment we have approximately 35 reportedly cases of the coronavirus,” Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, head of the command, said Friday morning.

“The measures we are taking are all of those that nations have put in place,” Wolters added. “One of the very effective ones that we believe is helping is social distancing, but all of the practices that you’re familiar with and all of us have read about in the news, we are embracing here in Europe.”

Wolters’ command is also overseeing the reduction of Defender-Europe 20, which was supposed to be the US Army’s biggest exercise in Europe in 25 years but has become one of many exercises to be reduced in size or canceled due to the coronavirus.

In the context of a large, multinational exercise, a disease like coronavirus is “something you’ve got to take the appropriate precautions [for], because it can spread quickly and have an immediate … impact on readiness and health of the force,” retired Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who led European Command between 2016 and 2019, told Insider this week.

“I think the fact that they’ve limited the exercise, stopped the movement, those kind of things are indicative of that, and [European Command’s] taken the right precautions to ensure that they take care of the force first, as a first priority,” Scaparrotti added.

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