Transcript

Marine Corps Officials Hold a Defense Department News Briefing on COVID-19 Efforts

March 26, 2020
Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger; Sergeant Major Of The Marine Corps Troy E. Black; Thomas B. Modly, Acting Secretary Of The Navy; Rear Admiral James Hancock, Medical Officer Of The Marine Corps

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

This morning, the secretary will provide remarks, and then we'll field questions by the commandant of the Marine Corps and sergeant major of the Marine Corps and the medical officer of the Marine Corps.

Sir?

ACTING SECRETARY OF THE NAVY THOMAS B. MODLY: Okay, thank you.

Good morning. Thanks again for what you do to keep the nation informed and for giving us a forum to -- to get information out. We appreciate it very much.

So good morning to all of you, and good morning to General Berger and Sergeant Major Black. Thanks for being here, and thanks for your leadership of the Marine Corps.

On Tuesday, I spoke to you about our efforts on the Navy side, and today we want to update you on the measures we are taking within the Marine Corps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

But before I do that, let me just give our latest Navy numbers so everyone's on the same page, in terms of where we are.

We have a total of 133 COVID-19-positive cases in the United States Navy. That's 104 active duty military, 23 civilians, 16 dependents, and 19 contractors.

I also want to give a quick update on the Teddy Roosevelt, which we spoke about the other day. We are -- we found several more cases on board the ship. We are in the process now of testing 100 percent of the crew of that ship to ensure that -- that we don't -- that we were able to contain whatever spread might have occurred there on the ship. And -- but I also want to emphasize that the ship is operationally capable and can do its mission if -- if required to do so.

So the ship is pulling into Guam. It will be pier-side. No one on the crew will be allowed to leave anywhere into Guam other than on pier-side. And we are already starting the process of testing 100 percent of the crew to ensure that -- that we've got that contained.

The sailors who have been flown off the ship are currently doing fine. None of them have been required to be hospitalized because their symptoms are very mild, their aches and pains and those types of things, sore throats but nothing that required hospitalization. So they're in quarantine now on Guam.

With respect to the Marine Corps, as of today, we have 44 positive tests for COVID-19 within the Marine Corps; 31 military, five civilian, five dependents and three contractors. We are continuing to take actions across the force to prevent the spread of the disease, contain any potential outbreaks and recover the force as quickly as possible.

We're doing all this across our integrated naval force in partnership with the Joint Force and our whole-of-government approach. We continue to provide quarantine support at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for American citizens returning from home from areas impacted by the virus.

We provided commanders and supervisors guidance to help personnel and families impacted by official travel restrictions and delays.

This supplemental guidance will help commanders identify personnel, policies, pay, benefits and flexibilities to help minimize the risk to Marines, respond to evolving situations and to ensure the readiness of the force. This guidance covers topics such as alternative places of duty, telework, leave and liberty along with subsistence, housing, family separation, temporary living and restriction of movement allowances.

General Berger recently published a white letter to all commanders and senior enlisted leaders describing our expectation of commanders and giving them the leeway to make decisions to preserve the force. And I'll obviously give him some time to talk about that if you -- if you'd like to hear more about that.

To help with social distancing, General Berger also has directed much of the headquarters and Marine Corps staff to remain at home to telework if they have the capability. Our intent is to maximize virtual conferences, meetings, classes and telework to alleviate large office crowding as consistent with the CDC guidance.

We have scaled back or canceled several service-level exercises to include exercises in Twentynine Palms and our Mountain Warfare Training Center.

We canceled scheduled training with our partner nations to prevent the spread of the virus. We remain fully transparent in reporting any positive tests on our installations to the local communities.

In that spirit, I want to confirm that a Marine stationed at the Pentagon tested positive for COVID-19 on March 24th. Per U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, the Marine is currently in isolation at his home and will undergo further assessment by health professionals.

The Marine followed official guidance by isolating himself when his spouse began to show some symptoms. Once he became ill, he contacted his assigned medical facility. His workspace has been cleaned by a Pentagon response team and a thorough contact investigation is currently under way to mitigate risk and to preserve the health of our Marines, civilians, and families.

The Marine was last inside the Pentagon on March 13th. Two individuals were advised to self-isolate due to close contact with this individual and the Pentagon, and both those individuals are currently asymptomatic.

Effective immediately, naval recruiters will temporarily transition to prospecting via digital and telephone means only. Marine recruiters will not be meeting in person with prospects or with applicants. Both Marine Corps recruit depots have implemented formal screening measures to identify possible cases of COVID-19 in recruits upon their arrival to the depot, as well as prior to traveling to the depot during their in-processing at the military entrance processing stations; we call those MEPS. Those who present any symptoms receive follow-on assessment to protect the health of our communities and sustain force health in -- force health and generation. At this time we -- we know that at least two recruits have tested positive for the virus down at Parris Island, but no instructors have tested positive.

Recent test results confirmed also that two Marines stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, have also tested for COVID-19. Those Marines are already in quarantine when they were notified of their test results. Both of those Marines worked in offices independent and separate from the recruit training locations. They are in -- as I mentioned, we just received -- received word that there are two confirmed cases of COVID-19 with recruits.

Public graduation ceremonies have been closed to the public until further notice to minimize the spread of the -- spread of the virus to the force and to their families. The depots have also implemented other health protection measures, to include spatial distancing in common areas like the chow hall, squad bays, and classrooms. We expect leaders to apply judgment to all situations and implement force health protection measures in order to preserve the force and our mission. Our commanders are empowered to take necessary precautions because the virus is unique to every situation and in every location.

We will continue to assess and modify as needed future global force management for deployment and redeployment plans for the next 60 days. Today, roughly 37,000 Marines are forward-deployed or forward-stationed. Those preparing for deployment continue to do so, while taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Marine Corps and our entire integrated naval force remains committed to mission readiness during this COVID-19 pandemic. We stand ready to answer the nation's call, while also preserving the force and our communities, and of course, our families.

Thank you. We look forward to your questions.

STAFF: Sir, we'll start on the phone. Bob Burns, Associated Press?

Q: Yes, thank you. Can you hear me?

STAFF: Yes, we hear you. Go ahead, Bob.

Q: Okay, Bob Burns from AP. I have a question for both commandant and the secretary.

General Berger, the secretary just mentioned briefly the reductions and cancellations of various exercises and training. I'm wondering if you can give a more broad assessment of the -- the -- the degree to which training has been impaired here. Is it, like, given all the restraints, including the stop movement order from Secretary Esper yesterday, is -- is training been reduced by, say, 50 percent or more?

And then if I could also ask a question of the secretary. You mentioned the 103 active duty Navy have been tested positive. I don't know precisely the comparison with the other services, but that seems to be higher than the other services, and I'm -- I'm wondering whether there's an explanation for why the infection rate seems to be higher in the Navy. Thank you.

SEC. MODLY: Well, let me answer that question first, then I'll turn it over to General Berger on the -- the other question about the training piece.

I think we are trending higher. I think some data that I saw this morning showed that we are probably a third of all the active-duty people that have tested positive are within the Navy and -- and Marine Corps. I don't have a reason for that. I -- I -- it would be speculation for me to try to give you a reason for why that has happened.

I -- I will say that we -- our forces are all over the world, all the time. That may have something to do with it, and they -- we also have big fleet concentration areas such as San Diego and Norfolk and other areas, where we have a lot of people that are together. But that's all speculation. We have not done the forensics yet on -- on where -- where these individual sailors contracted the disease, and until we know that, it just wouldn't -- it would be irresponsible for me to say why we think this is happening.

General Berger?

MARINE CORPS COMMANDANT GENERAL DAVID H. BERGER: Yes. As far as training, I think -- I -- I wouldn't -- I don't know if 50 percent -- I don't know the exact percentage. We haven't calculated it. I would say, though, that as the secretary mentioned, the -- the unique part about the Navy and Marine Corps team is this is your force in readiness that has to be ready to respond to a problem around the world, and we've -- we've never been given advance notice when that'll happen, so we have to be ready all the time.

So the -- the commanders, the guidance to them is pretty clear: Our force has to be ready to respond when we're given the direction to do so. So you need to conduct a training that's necessary to maintain your readiness. Now, they have changed the way that they're training and -- and to a large degree, where there's not large bodies in a close, confined space. They've spread it out, and they've curtailed some training that was nice to do, good to do, but not absolutely necessary for their mission-essential tasks.

So they've tailored it, but I think you expect your Marine Corps and -- and your Navy to be ready to go when -- when called to do so, and that's what they're training -- that's what their responsibility is.

STAFF: Mike Glenn?

Q: Yes, sir.

About the basic training graduations, when I graduated from basic is was important for my -- my -- my parents, it was important for them to be there because I accomplished something, finally, in my life. How -- what are you doing to allow them -- allow parents -- I mean, are you putting it on closed circuit, or you know, some sort of videotaping it or something so they can watch it at home.

SEC. MODLY: Yeah, they are. You want to answer the rest of that? I know -- correct. Everything is being televised live and recorded both. You -- you want to add anything, Sergeant Major?

SERGEANT MAJOR OF THE MARINE CORPS TROY E. BLACK: I had a couple tours of -- of depots as a drill instructor, so I -- I understand how important that those events are for the families and -- and for the recruits, new Marines that are getting ready to graduate. So this is a unique time. We're trying to find a unique answer to be able to provide that same sort of experience. It's not going to be the same as sitting at the bleachers at a graduation. There's just no way to replicate that, but there is some digital record of it that that's going to be transitioned with the new Marine, and they'll have that in their -- in their capacity to have that.

STAFF: Gina Harkins? Gina, are you there?

Q: Good morning. Thanks for doing this.

So as you know, some of these services, you know, the Navy in particular have taken some aggressive measures to keep troops from gathering in groups. They're delaying fitness testing, promotion selection boards, relaxing grooming standards. Is the Marine Corps moving out on any of those policies? And if not, why not?

GEN. BERGER: I want to address each one individually, but where they make sense, yes. Things like grooming standards – barber shops in one area may be open, and in another base they may be closed. So we very much trust the leaders to make those calls, and we've given them the latitude to waive requirements where it's not practical to meet them. So because the -- the flu, like other pandemics, is different area to area, region to region, we've not said all grooming standards are relaxed for a given period of time. But what we have said is all commanders have the latitude to make adjustments based on what's available at your location.

I don't know if that answers exactly what you’re asking, Gina.

Q: It does. And what about promotions board meeting, fitness tests?

GEN. BERGER: Promotion board's pretty fascinating. This is an area where over the last week, week and a half -- and I suppose probably the other service are the same -- looking at really creative ways for how you would run a promotion board.

Instead of, in other words, everybody being in one room staring at a computer screen discussing one Marine at a time, we're now looking at either we might have to delay it, or is it possible to spread across two or three rooms electronically with video teleconference capability and still be able to have the promotion board run on time, but you would be spread across multiple rooms.

So it's driving us to be pretty creative. And I -- again -- I suppose the other services are doing the same.

In some cases we'll delay things, in other cases that I think like always, younger leaders are coming up with really creative ideas for how to -- how to accomplish it but in a different way.

STAFF: Tara.

Q: Thank you. Tara Copp with McClatchy.

I was wondering how boot camp has changed now, or what adjustments have you made with the personal grooming or is everybody still getting their head shaved? What's going on there?

GEN. BERGER: Everybody's still getting their head shaved as long as the barbers come to work. But they are -- like here, he's smiling. You probably got the same, right, I imagine?

But there will come that time if it gets worse and worse and worse where barbers won't come to work. In that case, you know, we'll have to make a decision: Do Marines cut Marines' hair? Do we make adjustments? And we'll -- the commanders at both of our recruit depots have thought their way through it.

I think on the preventive side is the -- as the secretary mentioned, those who are going through the military entrance processing center and then onto Parris Island or San Diego, they're being isolated for a period of time to have a good look at them, to observe them before training starts, where normally they would have that period after boot camp -- like I'm probably sure you did for leave afterwards. We've just moved that to the front end.

So now, when you get to Parris Island or San Diego, you're in isolation for a period of time so we can observe and make sure everybody's healthy to go to start training day one.

But during training -- I don't know if you heard major adjustments during training, Sergeant Major, let me ask you.

SGT. MAJ. BLACK: Ma’am, that's a great question.

Again, here's my experience in the environment. There are challenges. It's kind of a new opportunity.

But social distancing is one of the largest hurdles right now in the environment, because it is closed. However, in our dining facilities, recruits are spread out more than they probably would be. Inside squad bays, they're spread out more than they normally would be. Hygiene's always a priority and cleanliness is always a high priority inside of recruit training, because inherently, no matter what, you bring people from across America, in one close space, there's challenges. That's a good thing, because there's already a heightened sense of hygiene already in that environment.

So imagine those things right now and making minor adjustments to the training schedule. But right now there's no significant impacts to what that product is at the end, which is a U.S. Marine.

Q: And then as a follow up, have any of the Marine Corps cases been aboard ships?

GEN. BERGER: None that I know of. There might be, but none that I'm aware of yet. No.

Q: And then if I may one last one, Mr. Secretary, for Navy personnel on the ships that tested positive, how did you get the tests to test the entire ship? And where are those tests going now to be processed?

SEC. MODLY: So on the carriers, on -- on the large-deck ships we have the capability to test in a lab there on the ship. So that's, sort of, our limiting factor right now: they can process through a certain number a day. And so we are looking at ways now to not only test -- maximize that capacity on the ship to test, but also to send some of those swab tests out to some of the other DOD labs for -- for testing.

STAFF: Shawn Snow? Shawn, are you there?

Q: General Berger, thank you for doing this.

I was wondering if you could address this idea that there's a general sense that the Marine Corps is not being a responsible stakeholder.

Pictures are still flowing in of large-scale mass formations, rifle ranges are still ongoing, exercises still kicking off as far as I know, 3/1 still has a large-scale ITX slated at Twentynine Palms in April, and barber shops on Marine bases are still open in states with stay-at-home orders.

How much readiness is impacted by the Corps just simply staying put for a couple months or altering its training to use more virtual trainers or academic classes? Thank you.

GEN. BERGER: I think it's the -- –if the pictures look different to you, Shawn, if they look unique, it's probably because it's true, the Marine Corps is unique. And we are mandated by law to be the nation's most ready force, and that's what I think you expect us to be.

The exercise you referred to at Twentynine Palms -- I'm not sure where you're getting your information from -- will not go in April, and we made that decision a couple days ago. So again, I'm not sure where you're pulling your information from but it may be dated a day or two.

The training that we do have to do -- for example, like the sergeant major said, at recruit training or officer candidate training, some of that is absolutely necessary and everything from where they live to martial arts training, some of that is pretty close and up personal .

But we're very confident that both the -- the leadership that supervises that training and the medical capabilities needed to respond to it are all in place.

All the right measures, I'm confident, are being taken. And the right exercises are either -- the exercises are either being postponed or canceled completely.

STAFF: Megan Eckstein.

Q: Yes. Thank you very much.

A clarification first, and then a question for the both of you. You mentioned earlier that there was some modifications taking place to training events that are going forward, just to allow for social distancing. I wonder if you had any examples you could share.

And then for the both of you, I know that the Marine Corps is obviously going through some major efforts right now with the Integrated Naval FSA as well as the Force Design 2030 effort. And I wonder how those are being impacted whether it's, you know, an inability to do wargaming and simulation efforts or just, you know, challenges with budgeting folks teleworking, just any impacts that you might be seeing?

BERGER: I think in terms of training, I'm trying to think of a good -- kind of a visual example where you could picture it in your mind, but I would say on something like a pistol range, where all of us might be this close to each other, lined up on a pistol range on a detail, they'll spread them out now, just like we are in this room, and maybe run more relays than they would normally run to keep a spread between Marines where -- where they can.

If it's a live-fire exercise, okay, you can only do so much to moderate social distancing when you're moving down-range. So each type of training, commanders taking the measures they can that make sense. But also making sure that their units are ready, are trained and ready to go.

The second part of your question, on force design -- and I'll turn it over to the secretary, but no impact to that. That's -- we're not going to spend time talking about it today, but the quick answer is no impact to that planning that I know of. It's just a little harder to do electronically and it's distributed but not stopped, I don't think. You know, that's --

SEC. MODLY: No, as you know, Megan, that's a good question.

And we -- we've been pretty aggressive at trying to look at this over the last several months. And the deputy secretary is now leading an effort to look at the overall force structure, which we are participating in, obviously, as well as the new carrier study that I launched a couple weeks ago, as well as sort of looking at our 355-plus plan and how we're going to do all that. All that work is continuing. And actually a lot of that work sort of lends itself to it not having to be in the same place. So I think that's fine.

And the bigger concerns I have, sort of -- is sort of the budget development process. Because as you know, we do that well in advance. And I think we're still trying to get our arms around what are the impacts of this virus going to be in terms of readiness that we're going to have to make up. So I think that's the only thing. But, you know, we're working this all in real time and no one's stopped.

Q: Okay. I know all those efforts require, you know, heavy modeling and simulation efforts with some of the computer labs that are set up at DOD facilities. Can that still take place now?

SEC. MODLY: Well, that's going to be -- that's going to be the bigger part of the challenge, I think. You know, we're integrating with the War College on this as well. They're -- basically have all gone virtual right now, so we're going to have to think through how we do all that.

Q: Okay, thank you.

STAFF: -- Politico? Politico, Lara, are you there?

Q: Hi, sorry. Can you hear me?

STAFF: Yes.

Q: Okay, great. Thanks -- thanks for doing this. 

I was wondering if you could tell me, the secretary earlier this morning in an interview, Reuters, was saying that he was going to -- the Pentagon's going to stop providing such granular information on the coronavirus.

I'm just wondering how this applies to the Navy. Are you still going to be giving us updates on the number of people who are getting tested on the ships, as you've currently been doing, and how many cases you've been having on the ships and in these -- these hotspots?

SEC. MODLY: Well, I think we're trying to be as responsive and transparent as possible in this. I think it's important that people understand where we are, how it's impacting us. But there - we have to balance that against operational concerns as well as privacy concerns.

So we're trying to develop the balance on that. It had been our policy not to really discuss where -- what ships were impacted, but obviously the information about the T.R. came out and we felt it was responsible for us to come out and give you all the straight story about what's happening there.

So we will follow the direction of the secretary of defense in terms of -- in terms of this, but from our -- from our perspective, from my perspective, being as transparent as possible is probably the best path.

STAFF: Jennifer?

Q: Secretary Modly, if I could follow up on what you said about tests on ships being available and labs on ship. I thought that we were told, 24 hours ago, that there weren't labs on ships, that they had to do the -- the testing, the swab testing and fly those off to labs on land. Has that changed?

And do you have the ability now, on all ships, to not only test -- you have enough swab kits -- but you also can put them through labs on board the ships?

SEC. MODLY: So, Jennifer, I think this is just --

MEDICAL OFFICER OF THE MARINE CORPS REAR ADMIRAL JAMES HANCOCK: Sir, yes. Thank you for the question.

Yes, no, we -- we do fly them off and they go en masse. We're working with industry, really, to answer that question. We would like a point-of-care testing, as you know, as well as our civilian counterparts. But we're just not there yet. What we can do is do surveillance testing. So we do it across the ship, so we know that.

As you guys know -- Force Health Protection's not new to us. The coronavirus is a novel virus. Viruses are not novel to the Navy and the Marine Corps. We do this every day, that's the reason that we're being responsive to it. Thank you.

Q: But just to follow up, when you say that you're going to test all 5,000 people on board the Roosevelt, those will be swab tests or surveillance testing?

SEC. MODLY: It's going to be a -- let me answer this one, because I just had a -- a call with -- with our medical people on this. It's going to be a combination of whatever we have available for us to do that.

And my understanding, we'll have to get you a more precise answer to that question. I know the small ships don't have the ability to test on board. But it's my understanding that on the larger ships, we do have the ability to do some limited testing on board. But that --

Q: Limited, so are you short of test swabs on board something like the T.R. Roosevelt?

SEC. MODLY: T.R. has approximately 800 kits on board. We're flying more on there today as we speak. So, they will have more brought in to help solve this problem.

Q: Okay.

And, General Berger, just in terms of the barbershops being open, you're still bringing barbers from outside the bases into -- from civilian community into the Marine bases to cut hair. And is that really a good idea?

GEN. BERGER: It varies base to base, as the last week has shown, where they've going from health protection condition A to B to C. Now countrywide in C. It has -- it has varied base to base.

Is it a good idea? We keep the commissaries open, keep the exchanges open, keep as many functions as we can to support the families. And we are planning, though, like the other services are, to reach a point where they don't come to work, it's not safe to do so. And then we'll make adjustments.

STAFF: Sylvie, you'll get the last question with AFP.

Q: Hello. Thank you. This is Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP.

I -- I understand -- this is a question for the secretary.

I understand the Mercy is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles on Friday. What about Comfort? Where do you expect it to arrive in New York?

SEC. MODLY: Well, we've -- we've -- thanks for the question.

We've accelerated the plan for Comfort. We had been originally been looking at April 3rd, but in all likelihood she's going to be getting underway this weekend. So hopefully she'll be there in New York by the early part of next week.

Q: Monday? Tuesday?

SEC. MODLY: Yeah, I'd rather not give a firm date on that. So -- but, we're -- I'm actually going to be going down there to the ship either tomorrow or Saturday. So sometime after that she'll be leaving.

And it will all depend on her transit time and how well she's functioning on the -- on the -- on the route up there, but I would say within a couple days of that.

Q: Can I ask one clarification on your response on the testing aboard the Roosevelt?

So, does the Roosevelt have the ability to process the tests or are those tests being flown off? I'm -- I was confused by the initial response and then the clarification.

SEC. MODLY: So -- so what was explained to me this morning is that there is some limited ability to do testing on the ship itself.

Q: To process -- to not only swab, but process them?

SEC. MODLY: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Q: Okay.

And then can you tell us how -- you said several more sailors had tested positive or were being -- can you give us a number, how many there were?

SEC. MODLY: There were three initial. There were five more that were flown off the ship or in the process of being flown off the ship. And then there are several others that are in isolation right now.

But as I said, the ship is going to be pulling into Guam and then they're going to figure out from there who needs to come off, who needs to -- who can stay on, looking at the level of symptoms and things like that.

STAFF: Any final remarks --

Q: Guam was where the initial sailors were or -- because you all -- you all were a little, sort of, hesitant about saying initially where they went. But it -- it was actually Guam, right?

SEC. MODLY: That's where the ship is going. So, yes.

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

Q: Thank you.