Transcript

Defense Department Press Briefing on Coronavirus

March 9, 2020
Mr. Robert “Bob” Salesses, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defense For Homeland Defense And Defense Support Of Civil Authorities; Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff Surgeon, Joint Chiefs Of Staff; Jonathan Rath Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN HOFFMAN: All right, everybody. Thank you. Sorry about that delay. Just as -- as you can imagine, there's a lot of different meetings going on. I want to make sure we've got the -- the right people in here. 

Obviously, so, conversation's on the record. You -- you know both of the participants that are -- are here with me today: General Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bob Salesses.

So first off, just want to reiterate, top three priorities for the Secretary with regard to coronavirus is protection of the service members and their families, safeguarding our key national security missions and capabilities, and supporting our interagency role within the whole-of-government approach to -- to countering this.

Just a -- a few updates. Obviously, we’ve continued with our precautionary travel restrictions for military personnel in high-risk areas. You've seen the restrictions such as INDOPACOM has had the non-official travel to Republic of Korea, China, Mongolia, the 14-day period between port calls. Europe has restricted all non-official travel in and out of a couple of regions in Italy, in northern Italy. And then CENTCOM has restricted all non-official travel to the region.

We're also been looking at our exercises and evaluating all current exercises with the commands and services to make sure that no modifications are necessary, and if modifications are necessary, to make those as needed. We're looking at our ability to move personnel in and out of countries where exercises are taking place; the -- the security measures that our host countries and -- and partner countries are taking; and then also, looking at it on the back end, moving our people back into the United States, and what measures would have to take place to do that safely. 

We have -- additionally, the department will be shortly updating the Pentagon Force Protection health guidance to implement the OPM guidance from this weekend. I think this will be the fourth iteration of the Force Health Protection guidance that we’ve put out, and that should be coming out. And as you guys saw today, we've already started to implement some of the measures at the Pentagon that we discussed – that were under discussion last week. These are going to include signage directing individuals to take hygiene measures, as well as social distancing. I would point out that this row over here is far too close together. There's plenty of seats, so -- but we have a -- yes, Barbara's -- Barbara's on point. 

BRIGADIER GENERAL PAUL FRIEDRICHS: Well done!

MR. HOFFMAN: So -- but we're -- a number of those measures. We're going to be implementing additional ones of those throughout this week, you will see in the Pentagon and -- and elsewhere. The goal is to -- to do what is prudent up front in an effort to -- to limit the spread of -- potential spread of coronavirus.

With that, I'll see if -- if you have something?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE BOB SALESSES: Sure. Just two -- two real quick things, and then I'll turn it over to Paul.

As Jonathan's indicated, there's civilian personnel guidance out. It came out yesterday. It -- it's focused on following the OPM guidances, certainly, but addresses workforce flexibility, specifically telework, alternate work schedules, visitors to DOD facilities, essential travel and those kinds of things. So it's important that that get out. Again, we're focused on force health protection, personnel readiness and mitigation, mission readiness, medical preparedness, logistics and supporting our partners. So that leads me to the next thing I want to talk about.

The Defense Department is going to be providing four facilities to support the passengers coming off of the -- yeah, the Grand Princess --everybody's got a Princess name as it relates to a cruise ship -- the Grand Princess. Those four facilities the department will be providing is Travis Air Force Base, Lackland Air Force Base, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, and Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. Two of them are in California, one of them is in Texas, obviously Lackland, and then Dobbins, as I just indicated, is in Georgia.

That will help allow CDC and HHS to move the passengers ashore and quarantine them for 14 days, so… Paul.

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Sir, thank you very much. So to frame this from a medical standpoint, the immediate risk to our force remains low across the force and I want to be very clear about that. We've had a handful of cases around the world. No one is seriously ill at this point, everyone that has been diagnosed is being appropriately treated, getting the care that they need.

So we have implemented a number of measures in order to make sure that people are appropriately identified and treated and thus far, those have all been implemented and are working. There was a question last time about testing. We have gotten kits out to our labs.

So as -- I -- I've been in meetings at 6:30 this morning but as of 6:30 this morning, we had 12 labs that were up and running that were performing the test. Last time someone had asked me how many tests we have performed -- I think that was on Thursday -- someone asked the question on Thursday, the answer was 23. I don't have an update for today so I don't -- I'll just say that right up front. I don't know how many tests have been performed since Thursday.

As we've -- as -- as was mentioned earlier, as we learn more about this outbreak we are continuing to update our guidance. So we've continued to put out more force health protection guidance and there's been questions, why do we keep putting more guidance out?

I want to be very clear as a doc, it's because as we learn more and as we see where the outbreaks are, we're trying to tailor to give the best advice that we can to commanders and to service members and their families.

So I fully expect we will continue to put out additional force health protection guidance on a regular basis as this outbreak continues to unfold. That is the right way to inform people of what we know as of this time is the best thing to do.

Some of the questions last time had revolved around when are we going to know certain points? I think one of them, when will we know if this is seasonal or not, we're still weeks away from that point. So, you know, that is -- that is a known unknown for us right now, as to whether this will be a seasonal outbreak or whether this will continue. And that mirrors the updates that CDC and others have provided. 

That's an important part of the analysis of the risk to this, because if it's seasonal, then we would expect to see the number of cases dropping off as the weather warms up. If it's not seasonal, then we won't see that and we'll just continue dealing with this as we move forward through the spring, into the summer.

So don't have that answer yet. That -- that really is something that we won't know for several more weeks. So I'll pause at that point and see -- and take whatever questions -- sir, however you want to work that.

Q: General, you just said several -- I thought you said -- I think you said a handful of people have been diagnosed. In fact, could you say exactly how many and -- and also are there civilian DOD employees who have been diagnosed with this disease?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So I'm not aware of any civilian DOD personnel who have been diagnosed. And I want to be careful in how I answer your question about the active duty. So if you remember, the CDC has come up with very specific terms. There are people who are under investigation and those are people who we suspect may have it and are in the process of being tested and are waiting for the first tests to come back.

So right now, we have -- this was as of 5:00 this morning, seven people who are under investigation who are active duty. Then there are people who are presumptive positives and that's where they have the first lab test positive and we're sending a confirmatory lab test and awaiting those results. And as of this morning, I was aware of two people in that category.

Q: Active duty?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Active duty, correct. And then we had the one active duty in Korea who was unquestionably positive. He's had both the initial and the confirmatory tests. And -- and I would ask for your understanding, those numbers are likely different now than they were this morning at 5:00 and they will change literally, you know, every few hours as we get additional test results in.

What I would offer to you is the absolute numbers right now are low and so as people begin to, you know, say "well what is the risk, how concerned should we be?" I would encourage that we try to keep the discussion on what can we do to keep the numbers low?

And from the medical standpoint, the really important discussion to have right now is implementing the appropriate mitigation measures to reduce those -- reduce the risk of more people becoming infected. And that's what was mentioned a moment ago about social distancing.

You know, we are very aggressively messaging that within the military to implement that now within work spaces, wiping down surfaces so that if someone does cough or sneeze, the surfaces are getting regularly wiped down to minimize the exposure to the virus. 

You know, covering your mouth when you cough -- these are all of the things that my mom told me years and years and years ago and she's 84, she still tells me those now if I -- if I fail to remember them. The common sense aspect of this is probably the most important aspect of this right now, those basic, unexciting, non-technical measures have significant impact on how rapidly this spreads.

If you look at countries like Singapore, which has done a very successful job at controlling this, what they did early was they avoided overstating the risk and they focused on the practical measures that every single person should be implementing. 

And that's where I would ask for your help, as you're writing your articles, we need to keep reinforcing that there's an individual responsibility to help with this by implementing those very basic measures, and that's the message that we're sharing within DOD.

MR. HOFFMAN: Jennifer?

Q: Why not stop tours at the Pentagon and do certain basic things like that that seem to be slow in coming? Have you increased the cleaning of public spaces in the Pentagon and what is the latest on the Fort Detrick research into a potential vaccine? Where does that stand?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So I can take the Fort Detrick question. So we're part of, and have been for years, part of an interagency research collaboration and that work is ongoing. As you may well know, the Walter -- Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has been very involved in doing research on both vaccines and medical counter-measures for a variety of viruses. And so they are actively working on that right now.

Now, I'll caution everybody and I'll reiterate what's been said by Dr. Fauci and others -- vaccine development is many months away. A -- a new vaccine for a new virus, as is the case right now, takes months to develop and then it has to go through safety testing and then it has to go to -- go through broader testing to see how effective it is.

So while we are working on that, I don't want to create a false perception that there's a vaccine that's going to be available next week. That -- that's -- that's just not possible for a new virus like that. Similarly, medical counter-measures are being tested right now but we don't have a firm timeline for when we will know how effective they are. We literally have to test them, the ones that we have. And then we're working on developing other ones. So that work is occurring, but I don't have a clear timeline for when we will have a vaccine or medical countermeasures coming out. 

And then you had asked...

MR. HOFFMAN: I can take the other ones. 

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: OK. 

MR. HOFFMAN: I think first, on -- you mentioned tours. As we talked about the guidance, OPM and the guidance came out this weekend, that it directed or informed our WHS guidance within the building on how we're going to handle it. So, some decisions like that on issues like that are being made today.

So we'll probably have some updates, either later today or tomorrow, on a couple things that probably fall on those lines of additional measures we're going to take. As we talked about this morning, we started out with some social distancing and wiping down workspaces and measures like that, and we're going to be introducing some additional things throughout the day and throughout the week. Some of the topics you mentioned are some of those that we're looking at. 

Q: Are there any bans on in-person meetings? Are you going to limit Tank meetings, for instance, as part of this social distancing? Are you doing more videoconferencing?

MR. HOFFMAN: I can say for example this morning, we had a meeting at a senior level that is normally as many people as you can cram into a room for a meeting. And we actually broke that out over a number of rooms and did it -- the meeting via videoconference between different rooms, in an effort to begin implementing social distancing among the senior leadership. 

Q: Thanks, Travis Tritten with Bloomberg. I wanted to ask about telework. Have you seen an increase in the number of Pentagon personnel who are working remotely at this point? And if not, what would be the trigger for having more people work from home? 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. SALESSES: Yeah, sure. So there's a number of organizations that have implemented and already have telework in place. And some of them are beginning to assess their capability to do it more broadly. 

But the nice thing again about this, as we look through this and as Dr. Friedrichs -- General Friedrichs -- pointed out, it's really a practical approach to how we -- how we institute these things. So everybody is capable of doing that, and they're testing it. And then as you get to the trigger, that will depend, right? 

I mean, just it always goes back to, unfortunately, that issue of when do we need to, how much do we need to telework, those kinds of things. What are the essential functions and what are we going to look at potentially continuity of operations, those -- but we're not at that point. 

But all of that is being planned, all of that is being looked at, and the different measures that support those activities and the actions that support those activities are in place so that people can execute that, no matter which organization they are in the Pentagon, whether you're at service headquarters, whether you're at WHS, whether you're at the OSD staff, the Joint Staff, whatever tenant organization you are. 

WHS is holding three-times-a-week meetings with all the tenants, the senior-level tenants, to make sure that everybody's on the same sheet of music going forward on these issues, too. 

MR. HOFFMAN: And I would point out that there was the OPM guidance, the whole-of-government approach that Bob mentioned. OPM guidance gives direction, and they can waive some of the requirements for telework, because there actually are, you know, provisions and policies in place on how telework should -- should normally take place. 

 But OPM has the ability to waive that. And I think they've been looking at whether to make it a little easier, and I believe they've given that authorization and that's something that we're looking at, how we can implement that guidance. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Do you expect the telework to be one of these things that might be rolled out today, the issues that might be addressed? 

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't -- I don't believe that'll be a decision.

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Well, I would just say from a medical standpoint, you know, we're already advising people, if you feel like you have a cold coming on, stay home. And so, one of the triggers that's -- if you're sick, for heaven's sake, don't come in and share that. You know, and...

MR. HOFFMAN: That goes for reporters too. 

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yeah, absolutely. So you know, this is not terribly sophisticated right now. If you're sick, don't spread your germs. That's a great trigger for teleworking, and for calling and notifying your supervisor, hey, I feel like I've got a cold coming on, I'm going to telework. 

We are advising everybody, if you feel like you need to see your doctor, go see your doctor and be evaluated. Those are very common-sense triggers for using telework versus coming into work and saying, oh, I'm going to tough it out, I've got this super-important meeting today. 

Q: Thank you. I wondered if you could talk about the Grand Princess passengers. How will they be transported to bases? Will DOD be involved in that? And then once they're on bases, do you have any idea kind of how many will live at each base? Are they living in barracks, are they going to live in like, you know, one of the cafeterias, but like on cots?

MR. SALESSES: Sure. 

Q: ... any sort of details like that? 

MR. SALESSES: Sure. So what the Defense Department is doing is providing facilities. And those facilities are single rooms with single bathrooms. That's what HHS required. 

Obviously, HHS, and CDC are in charge of this effort. They will be offloading the ship and screening the passengers at the pier, and then they will be put on transportation, depending on where they're going, it could be buses, it could be airplanes. And they're arranging all of that transportation. 

When they get to a DOD facility, HHS is managing all of that. All the -- what we call wraparound services, the feeding, the care of the folks and making sure all the medical care that -- that has to take place. If somebody presents with symptoms, they will be taken to either a local facility or HHS has additional facilities that they can provide, like the biocontainment facility in Nebraska. And that's what we used when we were doing the repatriation. 

Again, the Department of Defense is just providing the facilities, the single-room requirement and the individual bathroom that is associated with that. Because the folks are actually secluded in those rooms. The meals are brought to their room, they have the HHS employs doctors and medical professionals to check on them. If they see something, then obviously they're taken to medical care and HHS is responsible for moving them on to the additional medical care, if needed. 

MR. HOFFMAN: This will be -- this will be very similar to what we saw with -- with the passengers that were evacuated from Wuhan, very similar setups. 

MR. SALESSES: Yeah. 

MR. HOFFMAN: All right? 

MR. SALESSES: Exactly. 

Q: What can you tell us about the kind of symptoms the Marine in the D.C. area was exhibiting, whether or not he was practicing the kind of protocols you spoke about? Can you tell us basically what areas in D.C. he trafficked? Did he come to the Pentagon? Any kind of details like that would be helpful. 

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So I'm going to be a little careful in how I answer that. No one who's been diagnosed, with the exception of one patient, has had atypical symptoms. So of the people that I mentioned before, we have one patient who had kind of unusual symptoms.

And I think that's important because the most common set of symptoms are the cold-like symptoms that we talked about last time, that you've seen the CDC describing. About 2 to 3 percent of patients with the coronavirus have gastrointestinal symptoms, so nausea and vomiting and things like that. That's 2 to 3 percent, so it's a small number. But even within our group of military folks already, we've had one who had an unusual presentation -- and I'm not going to say which one. 

As far as the Marine and where he traveled, I'm not aware that he's had any contact with the Pentagon, so we're not tracking any visiting into the Pentagon. 

Q: And then to be clear, when you said there's three, is it the same three individuals, there was two presumptive and then one confirmed. These are the same three service members we already all know about, right? 

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes, I -- I -- I'm going to assume that that's the case.

Q: So two of the three are only presumptive? The CDC hasn't returned their tests?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Correct.

MR. HOFFMAN: The secondary test.

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: The -- right, the secondary test. So they have a positive – an initial positive test and we're waiting for the -- and that was, again, as of 5:00 this morning, so I would expect we may have those test results back now but I -- I just haven't been at a computer since early this morning.

Q: And the seven people who are being investigated, they -- they're – they’ve been tested by the military labs but the military labs haven't completed those tests?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: As of 5:00 this morning, yes.

Q: And the turnaround time ... 

(CROSSTALK)

Q: ... the turnaround time for those tests is hours?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So a test takes about four hours to run. You know, that's just the mechanics of doing the test. It depends on where they're located. So if they're located at a base that can do the test there, then it's the transport time to the lab, four hours, and then notified of the result.

Because not every hospital or every base has that. In some cases, the samples have to be transported longer distances and that just extends the duration until they get there to the lab.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right, try to keep it to one question, we'll get through a couple more so we can get out of here.

Q: My question is on what is the DOD telling local bases in the domestic United States about protecting their communities in states where there's outbreaks, like Washington state or California?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So we've been transmitting the same message that the Centers for Disease Control and I think everyone else has. We're part of those communities and so the -- the things that I mentioned before -- social distancing, you know that -- that absolutely applies, again, a community where there's an outbreak.

In some respects, even more importantly, it applies in communities where there's not yet an outbreak cause, you know, you can't prevent what's already happened but what you can do is try and minimize how widely it spreads and avoid it spreading into other communities.

So we're reinforcing the same message to our population that you've heard widely discussed by Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield and others.

Q: Can I just get a quick clarification? Because you have to go through gate, and there’s visitors and stuff like that, like, is there any, like, additional things that are being -- that you're asking to be implemented at, like, the base level in terms of screening or security because of the concern ... 

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So yes, it -- it depends on the community and the level of the outbreak that's there. So, you know, if a local community implemented a particular requirement, we are, in most cases, mirroring that on our bases, as well.

I -- I don't want to say in every case, cause, again, I haven't been on my computer since 5:00, but the ones that I know of, if the local or county public health officials said that their expectation is that X, Y and Z is going to happen, we're mirroring that for our population.

MR. HOFFMAN: And I would just -- I -- I'd give you the example of -- of what's taking place in Korea. So in Daegu, you have a -- a widespread community outbreak and the commander there has implemented measures on the base that address people coming and going from that base at a different level.

So the Commander has the authority to look at what's going on in the community, put messages out in the community and say because of -- of what's happening, we're going to change. We haven't seen that happen domestically but that -- that they have that authority.

So we're going to do two more quick ones. Jeff?

MR. SALESSES: If I can just say one thing so that -- that -- you know, this isn't -- it -- it's pretty well documented in -- in our documents, in -- in the way that we've proceed, whether it's community transmittal, whether it's increased, whether it's widespread.

And -- and so there's -- there's clear documents that have been published that all of the local commanders have that outline the kind of thresholds they hit and all of the -- all of the steps that you should take as -- as the threshold increases to get after specifically the things that you're asking for.

So it's -- it's not -- there's -- there's very defined guidance in that regards. It allows them to deviate a little bit and put stricter measures in place but as things go up, it -- it tells us exactly how they should proceed in that regard.

MR. HOFFMAN: Jeff?

Q: Thank you. Stars and Stripes reported on Saturday that 23 soldiers in Norway were put in isolation out of concerns that they had coronavirus. Do you have any update on that situation?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So I -- I don't have all of the details on that. My understanding is that there was a single non-American about whom they were concerned and because of that concern for this allied service member, the rest were put into quarantine.

I -- I can get you an update on that but that's, off the top of my head, the most that I have right now. 

MR. HOFFMAN: OK. Barbara, last question? We've got to go.

Q: General, I wanted to ask you one thing and you also Jonathan, when you said one presented with unusual symptoms, I'm not sure I heard, did you mean the gastrointestinal or -- that's what you meant? 

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes ma’am.

Q: OK. And Jonathan, can you just tell us in the meeting you described, was the Secretary in that meeting? 

MR. HOFFMAN: Mmhmm

Q. And can you tell us -- I'm not asking the subject of it, but was it, just so we understand, room to room, by teleconference, videoconference?

MR. HOFFMAN: Videoconference.

Q: And would -- is this now something that he has implemented for his work in the building? Does he expect to do more of it? You know, if he's changing his work profile ... 

MR. HOFFMAN: We think the Secretary's trying to set the example that we need to take some of these common-sense measures that the General mentioned, such as social distancing, seriously and to implement those and to do it in a way that we can continue to go about the business of the Pentagon.

And one of the things we want to continue to stress is that there are a number of different measures that we can take as we move off the risk ladder to confront the virus but still be able to continue to do the business of -- of the national defense.

And so I ... 

Q: Can you say when it was… this morning, senior staff or was it something else?

MR. HOFFMAN: This was -- this was a -- a -- a regularly scheduled senior staff meeting attended by the Secretary and other senior leaders from within the building where we took measures to -- social distancing measures. 

I -- the General was there so I -- I don't know if he's the one who -- who suggested it, but he probably was, but -- but the Secretary took that and the Chief of Staff and implemented it today.

Q: Was the Chairman there?

MR. HOFFMAN: Chairman Milley was there, yes.

Q: In person?

MR. HOFFMAN: He was -- he was in -- in the actual same room as the Secretary, so ... 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. HOFFMAN: But six feet apart.

Q: Is that your new rule for this?

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: That's not our rule, that's the CDC's recommendation. Again, we're not creating anything remarkable here, we're just, you know, trying to ... 

Q: ... the Secretary and the Chairman need to be six feet apart?

(Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Every -- every one -- every one should practice good social distancing ... 

Q: ... I'm actually pretty serious. I mean, that's pretty remarkable.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. HOFFMAN: ... we're encouraging everybody -- we're encouraging everybody to practice good social distancing, using -- using their judgment and -- within the bounds of what we can do to continue to do the job and the -- the effort this morning was to -- was to show that -- that we can continue to do this while practicing good risk prevention measures.

So -- but we've got to go. It’s 2:15, we've got meetings to get to. I'll stay back but I know I promised them that they can get out to get some meetings. Thank you guys.