Transcript

Gen. Robert B. Abrams Holds a Press Briefing on U.S. Forces-Korea’s Response to COVID-19

March 13, 2020
General Robert Abrams, Commander, United States Forces-Korea, and Commander, United Nations Command, And Commander, ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command

STAFF:  Gen Abrams will take questions regarding the USFK response to COVID-19.  This is on the record.  Reporters in the room here, we are asking that you introduce yourselves.  Please state your name and your outlet, as General Abrams cannot see you.  It's audio only on his end.

We are shooting for a hard stop of 0800, and we'll try to finish up questions by 7:55 to -- to allow the general to have a few closing comments.  He'll begin with -- with a few minutes of comments, and then we'll go into Q&A.

For the Q&A, Mr. John Supple -- he'll -- he'll be calling the questions.  Please respect our limited time with the general and keep your questions aimed on the briefing topic of COVID-19.  And please keep in mind, again, one question, one follow up.

With that, let's turn it over to General Abrams from -- for opening remarks.

Sir, over to you.

GENERAL ROBERT ABRAMS:  Okay, good morning.  How do you hear me?

STAFF:  All good, sir.

GEN. ABRAMS:  Okay, great.

Well, look, it's unfortunate that I can't see all of you and many old friends, so thank you for attending this virtual presser hosted by OSD Public Affairs.  Again, my purpose today is to give you a quick update on COVID-19 here in the Republic of Korea and how U.S. Forces-Korea has reduced risk to our formations and created safe havens for our populations.

So let me start with a quick review of the timeline.

On 27 January, as the outbreak in China started to gain traction and national attention, we here in USFK went to enhanced watch team to monitor and assess the situation.  In plain speak, we initiated 24/7 operations with a full operational staff in our ops center and providing daily updates.

On 28 January, we initiated a thorough data call for any service member, family member, DOD or Korea national civilian employee or contractor who either traveled to or through mainland China, including layovers.

And on February 1st, the same day *North Korea reported 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases, we raised our health protection -- protection condition to low -- HPCON Alpha and implemented the following control measures:  We developed communication plans for information sharing with our USFK communities, we established quarantine facilities, we planned life-support for those quarantine facilities and we checked medical inventories to verify on-hand receipts.

On February 2nd, South Korea announced 15 confirmed cases, and we mandated any service member who had visited mainland China on or after January 19th to immediately go into a 14-day self-quarantine.  We highly recommended everyone else do the same.  At our peak, we had 77 service members, family members and civilians in self-quarantine who had visited China.

On February 11th, as the virus began spreading like wildfire across China or outside China, we increased our data call to other Pacific nations, including Singapore and Thailand, and closely monitored their confirmed cases, especially because we had upcoming training events with USFK elements rapidly approaching in those countries, and other countries including Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  On February 11th, South Korea announced its 28th confirmed case.

On February 20th, the Korean Center for Disease Control reported 104 confirmed cases for all of South Korea, with 57 in the city of Daegu.  As we observed South Korean numbers rising and with a cluster of four Army installations based around Daegu -- that is Camp Walker, Carol, Henry, and George -- the proximity of the virus to our installations was at virtually -- literally at our doorsteps, as well as already upon those who reside in Daegu City.

Accordingly, we raised our HPCON condition to Bravo, or moderate, and implemented the following control measures:  We limited travel outside Korea and travel to and from Daegu to mission-essential only, we canceled school for all DoDEA schools in Daegu, we canceled all after-school programs and activities peninsula-wide, we canceled all meetings, formations, and training events greater than 20 people, we requested resupply of medical equipment and supplies to build up a 10-days of on-hand stock here in Korea, and we remain in close coordination with local South Korean governments, local governments and the federal government, to maintain awareness.

On February 24th, four days after we raised our protection level to HPCON Bravo, the KCDC reported 833 confirmed cases in South Korea, an eight-fold increase.  Among those confirmed cases was the first USFK-affiliated person, a retired soldier's widow who tested positive in the city of Daegu.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control also established South Korea that day as Level III.

On February 26th -- and this is a very important date for those of us in Korea -- KCDC reported 1,261 total confirmed cases in South Korea.  Included in that number was USFK and the Department of Defense's first service member to test positive for COVID-19.

As the outbreak in Daegu continued its acceleration due to a -- what we call a super spreader, known here in Korea as Patient 31, we raised our HPCON status to high, or Charlie, and implemented the following control measures:  We limited off-post activities to official business and travel only, reduced our workforce to mission-essential people only, implemented telework and limited visitor access to our installations for official business only.  And due to that restriction, we have seen a 60 percent reduction for installation entry which further reduced the potential spread to USFK.

Additional HPCON Charlie control measures included limiting off-post excursions to necessary duties only, traveling to and from work, grocery shopping, pharmacy runs, medical and dental appointments.  We placed bars, clubs, large social gatherings, eat-in dining and movie theaters as off-limits, and encouraged everyone to minimize public transportation.

For those authorized to come onto post, we enhanced screening procedures at every entry control point with detailed medical and travel screening questions and temperature checks.  Depending on the individual's response or temperature, medical professionals conduct additional screenings and send them home or to a hospital, as needed.  We require everyone to answer the questions honestly and truthfully without penalty.  If anyone is dishonest and we find out later, I have the authority to bar them from the installations, and have done so in one case already.

Within USFK headquarters, we implemented social gathering restrictions and distancing by limiting those attending meetings, increased space between seats, used overflow rooms and maximize video teleconference as much as possible.  We also clean and wipe down chairs, tables, podiums, microphones and other common and frequently used items and areas throughout the day.

Also on 26 February, DoDEA closed all schools across South Korea, and they currently remain closed today.  DoDEA's implemented tele-teaching to ensure teachers and students remain engaged, learning and remain on path towards earning credits and graduation for our seniors.

On February 29th, the State Department established South Korea as a -- a Travel Warning 3 and raised Daegu to Level 4 on March 2nd.

So here's how we've been successful at creating these impenetrable barriers, what we like to refer to here as protective bubbles around our installations, just to keep the -- the virus out of our formations, out of our workforce, out of our homes and out of our schools.

Our number one priority is to protect the force always.  And when I say "the force," that's inclusive of all DOD service members, families, DOD and Korean national employees, contractors and anyone affiliated with U.S. Forces-Korea.

Since early February, and out of an abundance of caution, we steadily implemented a number of strict health protection control measures, mitigation strategies and directives, as I previously briefed, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within USFK.

We have -- we currently have a total of nine patients who tested positive:  one service member, two active-duty dependents, and the rest are Korean national employees and contractors.  And it's important to note that all nine live off-base.  Out of a population of 58,000 people that touches U.S. Forces-Korea daily, that's a pretty low number:  less than one-100th -- one-100th of a percent of positive cases.

Connie and I, as many of you know, visited our one positive service member and two family members at the hospital here at Camp Humphreys.  They were doing well then.  They continue to do well.  They are asymptomatic, and we hope to see their release soon.

Another point:  We encourage anyone feeling sick to stay at home.  Do not come to work or go to school.  We've established a COVID-19 hotline, which they call and they maintain self-screening and take instruction from our medical professionals.

If anyone feels sick at work, we immediately send them home to monitor their symptoms.  If medical professionals suspect the individual has COVID-19 and while they are awaiting their test results, anyone who had immediate, close contact with that individual goes home for self-monitoring.  If the test comes back negative, everyone can return to duty while continuing to monitor their physical condition.

At our peak we had 392 service members, family members, civilians in self-quarantine, and today we sit at 55.  That number fluctuates daily, but we've seen a downward trend for the last two weeks.

So far, we've tested more than 145 USFK-affiliated individuals either through the KCDC or our own capability that we've established at the Brian D. Allgood Army Community Hospital on Camp Humphreys on 7 March.

If the test comes back positive, we immediately go into a COVID-19 battle drill.  The individual, if it's a service or family member, goes into isolation in one of our six negative-pressure rooms in our hospitals -- we have three rooms on Camp Humphreys and three on Osan Air Base -- for attentive care and observation by U.S. military doctors.  If they are Korean nationals, the KCDC will either isolate them in a Korean hospital or tell them to go home for self-isolation at their residence.

We thoroughly conduct contact tracing, meaning designated USFK personnel and the KCDC -- and by the way, on KCDC, I want to commend them for their incredible professionalism, transparency and coordination with us.  They've been great teammates.

Together, those trace teams identify anyone who has come in contact with a confirmed individual 24 hours prior to their symptoms appearing, up until the time they've been tested positive, and we put all of those people in quarantine.  And we also have a dedicated team that thoroughly cleans and disinfects any known on-post area where the individual visited.

We also identify any current hotspot location.  A hotspot is an area where South Korea's identified a confirmed COVID-19 individual has visited, and then we upload that location to an interactive map that we've built on our U.S. Forces-Korea website.  We send out alert text and e-mail messages so our community can conduct their own contact tracing to see if they have previously visited that hotspot, as well as to avoid those areas for the next 14 days.

We stress that everyone has an obligation to prevent the spread of the virus, and we've all embraced strict proper hygiene procedures that all of you by now have heard a hundred times, but believe me, they work.

But most importantly, if anyone's feeling sick we don't allow them to come in to work.  They stay home.  They avoid contact with others.  They -- we -- they monitor their physical condition and immediately seek medical treatment.

Two weeks ago, I followed my own guidance, left the headquarters and worked from home that afternoon because I wasn't feeling well.  I've told everyone, if you want to kill this virus, it requires a fundamental change in lifestyle.  And we are all living this fundamental change; there are no exceptions for rank or position.

We remain committed to doing everything we can to keep everyone safe while continuing our daily routines.  We must balance the overall health, safety and protection of the force with our other priority here, and that's to maintain our fight-tonight readiness posture to protect and defend the Republic of Korea.  That mission has not gone away with COVID-19, and you need to not look any further than the last two weeks with multiple North Korean missile tests.

COVID still 19 -- COVID-19 still has a lot of unknowns, and we're dealing with a fast and fluid virus that has an immediate impact on everyone, as all of you back in the States are experiencing now.

Currently, South Korean trends are trending downward and looking good:  113 cases nationwide today.  We all have a shared and personal responsibility to contain the spread of the virus and to protect each other.

I assess one of the keys to our success is that we operationalized our approach to combating COVID-19 from the very beginning.  This is not an administrative task, this is not a medical task and it's not a routine event, but it's an operation.  We are conducting 24/7, round-the-clock operations, and have been since 27 January.  We've approached it similarly to how we operate in combat.  We apply speed and violence of action on contact.  We apply analytical tools and predictive analysis, and provide daily update briefings to me and component commanders so we maintain shared situational awareness.

Another key to success has been open and transparent communications with our people.  For example, daily live-stream community briefings by our garrison and installation commanders with questions and answers, as well as multiple virtual town halls with our senior commanders.  We've also gone to great lengths in leveraging social media to continue to provide best information to our community that is timely, accurate, and relevant to them.

We are not out of the woods yet here in Korea.  We must all remain vigilant, and everyone must do their part in our efforts to control the virus.  And so far, everyone within U.S. Forces-Korea has been a hundred percent compliant with our preventive mitigation efforts.  I am extraordinarily proud of our USFK staff, all of our component commands and subordinates, all of our service members, our amazing families and employees who are maintaining their vigilance and resiliency during this time.  Our mantra here in Korea:  #KillTheVirus.

I'll end with that, and I'm ready for your questions.

STAFF:  Bob?

Q:  General Abrams, this is Bob Burns with AP.

You mentioned that -- I think you said that 145 people had been tested thus far.  Did that refer to USFK active-duty soldiers or everybody in the community?

And I'm wondering more broadly whether that -- you're able to test as many people as are required.  Do you have the capability to test what you need to test -- who you need to test?

GEN. ABRAMS:  Hey, Bob.  It's good to see you.  Thanks for the question.

That's 145 USFK-affiliated people.  So that's service members, family members, Korean nationals, contractors -- anybody in our workforce that touches our people.

The short answer to your question is yes, we can -- we -- we can get as many tested as -- as necessary.

As you may be aware, the Republic of Korea, learning from previous pandemic experience, revamped their system.  You know, three weeks ago they could do about 5,000 tests a day.  Today, they can do about 18,000 tests a day.

To date, they've already tested over 190 -- 189,000 South Korean citizens.  That's about one in every 280 residents, citizens of the Republic of Korea have been tested.  There's over 100 test stations throughout the Republic of Korea.  They've got drive-in testing centers.

So that's not -- that -- that was a limiting factor at the beginning but it’s no longer a limiting factor.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Barb.

Q:  General Abrams, Barbara Starr from CNN.

On testing, can you tell us, though, how long it took USFK to get its own testing capability that you felt was required so you were not reliant on the Republic of Korea?  And today, do you have -- how long did it take?  Why didn't you -- why didn't they get you what you needed?  And do you now have that capability resident within your forces?  And why did you need to bring in additional medical teams?  What didn't you have on hand?

GEN. ABRAMS:  Okay.  Thanks, Barbara.  And I wish I could see you and say good to see you, but thanks for the question.

We recognized early on, as I went back to the timeline, as soon as we went to HPCON Alpha, we knew then, as the Republic of Korea was beginning to gear up their own testing capability, and as they got more and more cases and they were having more requirements for tests, that their system was stressed.  And so that's when we started asking, when I submitted the request for our own testing capability here.

I -- I think you're well-aware and it's well-documented, you know, by federal law, for U.S. citizens, we have to use an FDA-approved test.  And there wasn't one.  So that was a constant reminder that I provided in routine updates, had frequent access with both the Chairman and the Secretary to help give us the resources that we needed so they were well-aware of the requirement, and certainly were advocating on our behalf.

The test kit arrived -- the test capability, if you will, arrived on 3 -- I want to say 3 March, and we had it fully operational by 7 March.  There's a number of things you've got to do to get it calibrated and so forth.  So we became capable, fully operational capability, on the 7th of March.

Now, having said that, KCDC, as I indicated earlier, they've been extraordinary partners.  We typically got our test results turned around in about 24 hours.  And in many cases, we know that they were taking USFK samples and pushing them up higher in the queue to make sure that we got the results back.  And so they've been -- they've been terrific partners.

The additional medical capability -- so in our organization, our hospital and our medical teams here, just like every other military hospital or any other unit in the armed forces -- specifically in the Army -- we have table of organization and equipment for personnel that they're authorized but not assigned, and those practitioners are assigned to medical centers so they can sustain their skills, keep up their certifications and so forth.

We used to call them PROFIS docs and nurses and medics.  They've got a new name for them now, I can't -- I can't keep up with the new name.

So the first request was, we need to get our PROFIS docs to be able to handle the additional load.  So it's not that we needed extra, we just needed what we were authorized should we go to like wartime conditions.

And so INDOPACOM and the services were very cooperative, and we got those people -- as soon as I dropped the request, we had people arriving within 48 hours.

We have also benefited from some augmentation from the Army's medical lab, some tech specialists that are not organic here in Korea, to provide oversight of the test capability, as well as we got three dedicated trace teams, specialists, in being able to do that tracing for us from a medical perspective.  And we've been able to have those teams here, and we've distributed them both here on Camp Humphreys, Osan, and down at Daegu.

So it's been a terrific partnership.

Q:  Just on that, I mean, having now had that test capability for six days, what has been your experience about the -- the pros and cons of the U.S. test versus the Korean test?  They're different tests.

Could you -- could you give us some sense of what impact do you think that the -- sorry, the furloughs would have if they go forward, given you know, everything that's going on right now and your contingency plans?  If the furloughs go forward on April 15th or April 1 or whenever they go forward, what impact would that have on you?

GEN. ABRAMS:  Yes, so the furlough -- and as the secretary, Secretary Esper or I think the Pentagon announced a couple weeks back, he did approve us authorizations to maintain portions of the workforce tied to life, health, safety, and minimum readiness.

And so, you know, that -- that's what's going to happen, pending any extraordinary effort.  I understand that there's going to be another negotiation session in Los Angeles on Monday or Tuesday next week.  But if there is no agreement in principle by the 1st of April, we will be furloughing a good portion of our population.

So how that directly relates to COVID-19, it won't impact on life, health or safety or minimum readiness.  We'll have -- those people will be able to sustain that.

But that only works in the short term.  As I've articulated back to the building, there are long-term effects, depending upon how long we maintain that current status.

The -- the other concern we have now is with the recent stop-move order that came out of the department, we're going to have a large backlog of people who need to depart Korea and say, hypothetically, that the -- the period ends, I think, 12 March or 12 May for us, we'll have -- we'll have quite a few service members stacked in the queue.  So we're going to have a bulge competing with all the inbounds and normal outbounds for the months of May and June.

So we have provided -- I'm in dialogue, I provided my recommendations back to the building for some additional resources, to be able to retain some additional Korean nationals, to be able to mitigate the effects of that bulge that we -- we did not properly plan for and predict.

I mean, this is really a Black Swan event.  And when we provided that analysis back to the department over a month ago, that wasn't in our calculus.

So we're in dialogue with the department to seek additional authorizations.

Q:  The difference between the two tests?

GEN. ABRAMS:  Yeah, I'd have to -- we've have to -- I don't -- I don't actually know.

I am -- now, I will tell you one thing, and I want to make this clear to everybody.  Just by sheer luck and chance -- you know, I have a colonel who is the U.S. Forces-Korea surgeon.  And, you know, by definition, that's any medical doctor serves as the surgeon.

You know, last year, I think I had a -- I had an orthopedic.  This year by sheer luck, I happen to have one of the Army's leading infectious disease doctors as the USFK surgeon.

I'll ask him the question and we can provide that back to the department.  I -- I don't know.

But they're -- they're both working.

Q:  Thank you.  General Abrams, Tara Copp of McClatchy.

As you mentioned before, North Korea is still firing missiles.  Can you give us a sense of how you have maintained regular operations?  Like, in the Joint Operations Center are you having social distancing?  How are you flying sorties?  How have you been able to still operate while maintaining the coronavirus at bay?

And then secondly, sir, have you yourself been tested?  You said you weren't feeling well a few weeks ago.

And what sort of policies do you have for who gets tested on base?

GEN. ABRAMS:  Yeah, okay.

So let me be clear, right?  No, I have not been tested.  What we -- what I said was is I wasn't feeling good so I went home.  The next step is -- is self-monitor, and if you continue to not feel well, seek medical attention.

By the next morning I felt 100 percent good, so I followed our own protocol and -- and I was good to go; not necessary.  But had I woken up the next day, not felt well, I would have been on the phone with my -- with my physician and I would've taken myself over to the hospital for medical evaluation.

To your question about how we're maintaining our operations, so yes, we -- we -- of course we mandate social distancing.  I've seen the pictures there in the -- in the press room.  It's actually kind of funny how you guys are all perfectly measured, seven feet apart or whatever.  But look, in our Operations Center that's actually not feasible, right?

So there's other ways to mitigate the risk.  So we do screening before you go into the Operations Center.  We've limited the number of people who are allowed into the Operations Center, basically trusted agents.  They're constantly doing disinfectant operations with spray, wipe-down, et cetera.  Everyone is being ultra-careful in their dealings.

And then fundamentally, it boils down to trusting your teammates that they're doing the exact actions required so that we can maintain a very vibrant, capable operational capability.

Same crew -- goes with our aircrews.  We're still flying.  We're still training.  We're still shooting gunnery.  We're still qualifying our weapons.  We're still conducting maneuver training.  All of that is possible as long as you apply the additional mitigation measures that I mentioned to you.

So that -- that is a -- that's a long way of me telling you that there -- there's ways to work around it, but you have to go to some extraordinary measures to ensure it's safe for everyone.

STAFF:  Sir, if it's okay with you, we'll have two more questions.

Q:  Thank you very much.  Good evening, General Abrams.  I'm Jenny Pak with USA Journal Korea.  I've just come from Korea, and I have a few questions.

Are you satisfied with South Korea government response to COVID-19?  If not, what would you recommend to South Korean government?

And second question:  Is there any suspicious activity by North Korea, if they're -- they're using a chemical biological weapons?

Thank you very much.

GEN. ABRAMS:  (UNTRANSLATED)

To your second question, no.  There -- there are no indications of any, sort of, attempts by North Korea for -- to inject some sort of biological weapons or anything like that.

You know, you've seen the public statements by North Korea that they claim that they have no COVID-19 cases.  It is a closed-off nation, so we can't say emphatically that they -- they have cases, but we're fairly certain they do.

But what I do know is that their armed forces has been fundamentally -- been on lockdown for about 30 days, and only recently have they started routine training again.  As one example, they didn't fly an airplane for 24 days.  So they're -- they're back to flying training sorties.

Ma'am, with all -- with all respect, I -- it would be inappropriate me -- for me to comment on the Republic of Korea government's effort in controlling COVID-19.

I will tell you that we have -- we have received every bit of support.  The efforts that we have seen have been extraordinary.  They've been responsive.  The president himself declared war on COVID-19 about six days ago.  They've gone to great measures to help the good people of Daegu and that province.  There is -- I mean, there's been tremendous amount of sacrifice by the Korean people to change their lifestyle, limit their socialization.  There's been a huge impact economically because many of the shopkeepers, stores, bars, restaurants, et cetera are not seeing that.

So we've had great, great cooperation, great support from CDC.  We're getting great support from the Korean health care system and -- and we've certainly been receiving great support from the Ministry of National Defense and the ROK JCS.

So I -- I don't have any suggestions for what they're doing.  From a USFK perspective, I -- I could not have asked for a better partner.

STAFF:  Final question, Lucas?

Q:  Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.  Good evening, General.

Last week, you had seven cases of coronavirus among USFK personnel.  This week, today, you're saying nine cases.  Who -- who are these two additional cases, and when did you learn about them?

GEN. ABRAMS:  So I -- I learned about them within about an hour after their test result cames (sic) in.  That -- that's what you get with a -- that's what you get when you -- you have operationalized the fight against COVID-19.  We executed our battle drill to standard.  And so we -- we can provide you the dates, but we -- we report on the same day it happens.

Case Eight is a non-appropriated funds worker in the Burger King at Camp Walker in Daegu.  And the other one was a Korean national construction contractor who's working on one of our new family housing towers down at Camp Walker.

Q:  Thank you, General.

STAFF:  Sir, thank you.  Any closing comments for you, sir?

GEN. ABRAMS:  Yeah.  Hey, thanks very much.

First off, thanks to all of you.  I know many of you are early risers, but thanks for coming in today and -- and giving me an opportunity to give you an update on our fight against COVID-19 here in the Republic of Korea.

You should be extraordinarily proud of all American citizens here, everybody in USFK, your service members, your family members that are serving over here.  They have been amazingly strong, amazingly resilient.  Their morale is off the chart.

Connie and I were down at Daegu, I don't know, the 1st of March or so.  We went all over the place.  We talked to hundreds of people.  They're -- they're in a tough situation, and there's a -- everybody's making sacrifices, but everybody's rolled up their sleeves.  We've got great community spirit, great community help.  Everybody's pitching in, and it's -- it's just been absolutely extraordinary.

We -- the next point I'd tell you, in closing out, is we haven't taken our foot off the gas.  We have predictive models.  We're watching it very closely.  And we won't take our foot off the gas in terms of prevention and mitigation control measures until I'm absolutely confident that it's safe to do so for our -- for our USFK family.

So thanks again.

STAFF:  Thank you, sir.

That concludes our conference.  Thank you for coming.  And thanks to the team behind the scenes who made this happen on the other side of the world.

Thank you.  Have a great day.

*[Eds. Note:  DOD raised its health protection condition the day that South Korea reported 12 cases of COVID-19, not North Korea.]