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Pentagon leaders brief department's COVID-19 response to reporters

Three men sit at blue table with American Flag and Pentagon symbol behind them. Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs (left) briefs reporters about DoD response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also participating were Lernes Hebert, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, and Thomas Muir, director of Washington Headquarters Services. (Department of Defense photo)

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COVID-19 has presented local leaders and commanders in the Department of Defense with unprecedented decision-making challenges in the past few months. Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, voiced confidence in the response of these leaders who are using Military Health System data to make decisions about COVID-19 for their commands. McCaffery made his remarks during a July 1 press briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. 

“Decision-making is very much tied to what is happening in their local community,” McCaffery said. “[The MHS] tracks [COVID-19] cases and get reports on a daily basis, and that information is shared with the commanders on the ground to make well-informed decisions about what to do.”

McCaffery was joined in the briefing by Thomas Muir, director of Washington Headquarters Services, and Lernes Hebert, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy. The officials described how the Military Health System is supporting community leaders across the nation facing pandemic re-opening decisions by offering timely data and sharing information. The leaders also noted the vast system of medical specialties, professions, and research that informs the total effort to give commanders the medical resources they need.

The officials said the COVID-19 pandemic affects each population center differently and at different times. As the country experiences “hot spots” of pandemic activity, community leaders and military commanders together decide protocols for public safety on a case-by-case basis, backed by Pentagon and CDC guidance and updated health surveillance data. 

“The installation commanders are following local public health guidance and making sure that we have a well-informed force, as evidenced by the behavior they’ve exhibited throughout this pandemic,” Hebert said.

MHS gathers and analyzes data on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 largely through the Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. AFHSB monitors the spread of the virus and other emerging pathogens that may threaten the safety of U. S. service members. 

The Washington Headquarters Service’s Muir shared how the Pentagon uses the most current medical surveillance data as employees slowly return to the office.

“We look at the same data from authoritative sources,” Muir said. “We are fortunate in the DC area that [COVID-19 cases] are all trending downward. Working with local public health authorities and our Public Health Office here in the Pentagon drove us to make the decision to move into Phase 2 of our resilience plan, so we’re seeing a return of the workforce.” 

Signs are posted all over the Pentagon, Muir said, to encourage employees to social distance in the workplace when possible and wear cloth face coverings. Face coverings are provided to employees arriving without one at the building. Muir reported strong compliance with the new procedures, complimenting the workforce for their flexibility. 

“We’re seeing great behaviors from a well-educated and informed workforce,” Muir said. “They know what they need to do to protect themselves and their families.”

MHS redoubled military medicine’s research and development efforts to focus on diagnostic testing and has previously announced a $75 million investment in vaccine research candidates. McCaffery noted that DoD is supporting Operation Warp Speed, the whole-of-government initiative to deliver 300 million doses of an effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021.

“It’s natural that we do research on vaccines because we want to make sure if our troops are deployed somewhere that they have protection against infectious diseases,” McCaffery said. “So some of the research that we have been doing for military purposes on several vaccine and therapeutic treatments is a part of the all-government effort to meet that Operation Warp Speed goal.”

For more information on how MHS is contributing to DoD coronavirus efforts, visit the coronavirus page on the Military Health System website.


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