Military at risk from COVID-19: ‘Anxieties are really high’

Members of Florida’s National Guard help at a coronavirus testing site in Pembroke Pines, FL. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense is on course to get a major funding boost as the U.S. military is drawn into the nation’s war against an “invisible enemy.”

The issue is of special concern in Florida — home to nearly two dozen military bases and a large military population. As of last year, the Sunshine State claimed about 100,000 service members and 32,000 civilian Defense Department employees.

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly adopted a $2 trillion spending package on Wednesday night that would inject $10.5 billion into the Defense Department as it responds to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. The department’s fiscal year 2019 budget was nearly $700 billion.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, would get $20 billion for health care, medical facilities and more.

More than half of the Defense Department funds are geared toward the health and safety of military members and families, such as medical care and treatment; protective equipment for personnel; and support for treatment facilities at home and abroad.

It also includes money that would help the federal government leverage the Pentagon’s response to the pandemic, including research and development on U.S. military bases for vaccines and treatment. 

Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio — both Republicans — voted for the bill. Scott said in a statement that he did so despite some provisions that are “antithetical” to his beliefs. 

GOP Rep. Michael Waltz — a veteran of the U.S. Army, a member of the U.S. National Guard and a member of the House Armed Services Committee — tweeted Thursday that he hopes the bill passes. “There is never a bill where you like everything,” he told a local radio program Wednesday, but he added that “people need help.” 

Rep. Val Demings, a Democratic member of the House Homeland Security Committee, tweeted her support Thursday: “Let’s get it passed and get help to the American people ASAP.”

Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, told the Phoenix the “plus-ups” for the Defense Department are needed to protect service members and their families, maintain readiness and support the military’s participation in the “whole of government” response.

Brown also backed funding for the U.S. National Guard, which would get $1.5 billion to support emergency deployments.

Nearly 10,000 National Guard troops are currently performing a variety of missions in response to pandemic response efforts, with more expected to join the effort soon, according to the Pentagon. On Sunday, President Donald Trump said the federal government would fund approved U.S. National Guard response efforts.

The Senate’s “Phase 3” bill is slated for a vote in the U.S. House on Friday morning and has the support of Trump, who said Wednesday he would “sign it immediately.” 

Service members eligible for civilian benefits

Members and veterans of the military are also eligible for provisions aimed at the general public, which include direct payments up to $1,200 for adults and $500 per child, unemployment insurance benefits, student loan deferrals and funding for child care and education.

Brown said he wants to make sure veterans and their families don’t lose housing and education benefits during the crisis. Trump signed legislation last week to protect education benefits for student veterans during the crisis. This week, lawmakers introduced a “student veteran coronavirus response” package designed to protect housing benefits, work study payments and other benefits.

Waltz also touted legislation that would create a new visa category for foreign military members who train in the United States, which he said would improve tracking and vetting.

Last week, Trump signed into law a “Phase 2” coronavirus package that grants free access to tests for the virus, boosts paid sick leave and strengthens unemployment insurance, among other things. The law’s paid sick leave provisions don’t apply to all Americans, but troops are covered by military paid sick leave policies, Brown spokesman Christian Unkenholz said.

Lawmakers are already considering a fourth coronavirus response package, and Scott tweeted Wednesday that he has outlined steps to get the country “back to normal” in 30 days.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who sits on the U.S. Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, told the Phoenix that lawmakers will focus attention on the health and safety of the military — and its ability to respond to the pandemic — this spring as Congress considers legislation authorizing funding for the Defense Department. 

The Trump administration’s “diversion” of Pentagon funds to pay for construction of a wall at the southern border will likely come under review, he said. “That money could be much better spent … on the pandemic response,” he said. 

We don’t live in a risk-free environment’

Despite federal efforts to support troops, veterans and families, concerns abound as the virus spreads. “Anxieties are really high,” Kaine said.

At least 415 people in the country’s military community had contracted the virus as of Wednesday, according to CNBC. Of those, 227 were among active-duty military, 81 among civilians, 67 among dependents and 40 among contractors.

The Defense Department reported its first case in the Pentagon Wednesday, and the first military death related to the virus occurred on Saturday.

The rate of service member cases was about 175 per million troops, the Military Times reported on Wednesday. That rate is higher than the U.S. at large, which was at 135 per million. 

Nationwide, more than 68,000 confirmed and presumptive positive cases — and nearly 1,000 deaths — have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases have been cited in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories.

The military’s contingency response forces are now operating under the U.S. Army’s highest health threat level, and the health threat at Army bases was raised this week, according to Military.com. 

Army researchers are working to develop experimental vaccines, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in a news conference this week that U.S. Navy hospital ships are preparing to deploy to support medical treatment efforts.

On Tuesday, Esper and other military leaders held a virtual town hall to address troop and family concerns relating to issues like access to medical supplies and testing, especially in isolated areas, and protocols that could conflict with social distancing guidelines, such as unit formation exercises and activity in confined spaces like tanks, bomber aircraft and submarines.

“The administration, the military are taking all necessary measures to protect our force, to protect our people, to protect our dependents, to protect our contractors and our civilians,” Esper said. That, he added, is the best way to maintain readiness and serve the nation.

Still, he conceded that the military can’t comply with all social distancing requirements and said troops and families are at some risk. “We don’t live in a risk-free environment,” he said.

To slow the spread of the virus in the military community, the Pentagon issued a global order to halt station moves, imposed travel restrictions and is following the CDC’s health guidelines to the extent possible, Esper said. He also pointed to a stockpile of medical supplies and fully staffed facilities. 

Kaine said he is also seeking non-legislative actions, such as possible waivers to stop-travel orders that would allow medical experts and other service members with needed skills who are abroad to return. “There is a lot of additional work that needs to be done,” Kaine said.

States Newsroom reporter Robin Bravender contributed.