Transcript

Senior Defense Officials Update Reporters on COVID-19 Responses

July 1, 2020
Thomas McCaffery, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs; Thomas Muir, Director of Washington Headquarters Services; Lernes Hebert, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defense For Military Personnel Policy

STAFF:  All right.  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you all for being here and thank you on the line for joining us.

As you are aware, today's briefing is a COVID-19 update on the Department's guidance and today we have with us Mr. Tom McCaffery -- he's the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs; Mr. Tom Muir -- he's the Director of Washington Headquarters Services; and Mr. Lernes Hebert -- he is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy.

Again, as you are called on please limit your questions to one question and a related follow up.  If there are any questions that we are not able to answer in the room today, please feel free to follow up with me afterwards and I will make sure you get a response accordingly.

That said, without further ado, gentlemen.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE THOMAS MCCAFFERY:  Okay.  Good afternoon.  Just briefly as introduced my name is Tom McCaffery, I'm the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and in a nutshell I oversee the military health system.  So we obviously have been involved in many facets of -- of the Department's response to the -- the pandemic.  Everything from deployment of medical assets in support of the domestic requirements.

Everything that we do in terms of providing guidance for force health protection of our troops and our employees and everything that the military health system does in terms of military-related research and development for things like vaccines and therapeutics.  And so I will look forward to answering any questions you have with regard to the role the military health system and the Department's response.

DIRECTOR THOMAS MUIR:  Thank you.

Good afternoon.  My name is Tom Muir.  I'm the Director of the Washington Headquarters Services as discussed.  I'm responsible or accountable for the customer experience here in the Pentagon Reservation for our tenants, our customers, visitors, and the tenants of the reservation itself.  As part of my duties, I perform the responsibilities as the military installation commander for the Pentagon Reservation and so of course we find ourselves today in Phase II of our Pentagon Reservation plan for resilience, welcoming back a lot of our workforce that has been teleworking over the last three or four months.  And I'm happy to answer questions on the impact of the Pentagon Reservation.

Thank you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LERNES HEBERT:  I'm Lernes Hebert and my portfolio involves all types of military personnel policies.  Think of assignments, promotions, separations, but specific to COVID-19, the travel restriction policies that the Department has put in place.

STAFF:  All right.  So without further ado we're going to go ahead with the question and answer session.  Starting here in the room.  Barbara?

Q:  I'm not sure one of you this is for maybe, you, Mr. McCaffery, but could –you – whoever, all of you, address:

There is so much out there right now.  Of course the uptick in civilian society in COVID cases.  What are you seeing in the military in -- as you make your decisions in trend lines in increased COVID cases, symptomatic or asymptomatic?  Just people who have the trend line of -- of increase in the number of people who have viruses.  And how is this impacting the civilian sector situation, impacting your decision-making about the military around the country?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  Sure.  Let me -- let me take that and my colleagues can chime in.  So, not surprisingly, we're seeing some uptick in -- in our cases in terms of infection largely around where we're seeing that in the civilian communities.  So, in Florida and Texas and Arizona, some parts of California, so that's -- that wouldn't be a surprise.  I mean, we are part of the community so where there are some upticks there, we are seeing that as well.  In addition, though, for us it's probably also a -- a factor of -- in the beginning parts of the pandemic we, like the rest of society, was really focused on making sure we were testing those that had symptoms and were showing up with symptoms.

Over the -- the last couple of months, we have done more testing of -- of those who don't have symptoms, of folks that are, you know, deploying on a mission, some of our strategic assets, and so we would expect if we're doing more testing of those that are asymptomatic, we are going to see more -- we would see more of an uptick in cases.  So right now our focus is looking at the data we have with regard to our particular, you know, installations and health facilities in those areas where there are -- are hotspots in the community.  And making determinations based upon what's happening on the ground, you know, do we need to take any more actions with regard to that -- that local installation in terms of, you know, force health protection, access to the base.

What -- what we're not seeing, which is a good sign, is we are not seeing any material uptick in -- in metrics that would indicate that we are -- we are seeing the infection rates translate into, you know, sickness or -- or wellness.  Meaning, we're not seeing material increases in our -- in hospitalization of -- of our -- of our active duty or employees.  And so, you know, right now across our systems of all of our facilities in the country, we have 57 total inpatient admissions that are tied to COVID.  So --

Q:  So how is this -- I'm sorry I don't know which is best to answer.  How is this affecting in -- in you mentioned Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California.  How is this affecting decisions about bases?  Have you seen any base commanders tighten up again if you will because of what's happening in their communities?  And do you have any concerns about your uptick in -- these are in military active duty?  Right?  Okay.  Do you have any concerns that you are seeing now an uptick in what you've always characterized as a relatively young, relatively healthy population?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  As I said, this is -- the guidance from the Department is that we provide, you know, data and factors for local installation commanders to use in making decisions about what types of public health mitigation strategies they want to put in place for their installation.  It's very much tied to what's happening in their local community.  As I mentioned, while we're seeing some upticks in the same places there are upticks in the civilian sector, again that is not necessarily overly surprising in that we've been doing more testing.  We've been doing more testing of those who are asymptomatic.

So that information is something that the installation commanders have.  They use that information to make decisions based upon their local circumstance, their local mission.  It is definitely something we are, you know, we track these cases.  We get reports on a daily basis and that information is shared with the -- the commander on the ground to make, you know, well informed decisions about what to do.  That can be everything from, you know, access to -- to that installation.  You know, what types of gatherings are allowed, are not allowed.  But again, it's all -- it's all locally based and tailored.

MR. MUIR:  And if I could follow onto that and kind of explain sort of what Tom just mentioned how we did that here for the Pentagon Reservation if we use this as a military installation.  Looking at the same data from authoritative sources, state and local public health authorities, we also track military health readiness from our military treatment facilities.  Our military positives from our records coming off our military forces.  But the majority of us here in the Pentagon, of course, are civilians and 20 percent military and about 72 percent civilian here in the Pentagon.  We're a product of the civilian economy, rather, for our health care for most of us.  And so we track, of course, three regions now, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, about a 50-mile radius around the Pentagon.

Tracking those trends of 14-day downward trend for influenza-like illnesses and COVID like symptoms.  The 14-day downward trend for new cases. There are spikes in the linear regression, but we're tracking a linear aggression discussion over a 14-day trend.  A 14-day downward trend in positive cases and then as Mr. McCaffery mentioned, as Tom mentioned, looking at hospital capacity and PPE and or personal protective equipment and testing for health care workers.  We're fortunate in the D.C. region that those are trending downward, working with local public health authorities.

We have a public health office here in the Pentagon itself.  That drove us to make the decision last week to move to Phase II of our resilience plan effective this Monday.  So we're seeing a return of the workforce.  Once again, as Ms. Starr mentioned, based on local conditions, applicable to this military installation, making those informed decisions using authoritative data sources.  And I would imagine the rest of the military installation commanders are doing the same thing.

STAFF:  All right.  We're going to go to the line.  We have Idrees.

Q:  Great.  Thank you.

Two quick questions.  First, do you have a number of people who have tested positive at -- at the Pentagon Reservation?  And secondly, have you seen instances of people refusing to wear masks?  And if so, have they been penalized or is there any penalty?

Thank you.

MR. MUIR:  I think I'll take that question.

This is Tom Muir, Director of Washington Headquarters Services for the Pentagon Reservation.  We have -- we have reported throughout the COVID pandemic.  Our numbers have been rolled up, reported daily through the Joint Staff provided to the public and to the media for the Pentagon Reservation as all other military installations are reported.  Our reporting is rolled up in that reporting.  I can tell you that our numbers are significantly less than our surrounding communities.  That the Pentagon is a safe place to work and that we take great measures to make sure that it's a safe place for our workforce to work.

Reference masks.  It's a great question for cloth face coverings.  Of course you'll see signage everywhere here in the Pentagon Reservation to wear your cloth face coverings when you cannot maintain six feet of social distance.  Signs are all over the place at our military reservation, not just here but the Mark Center and our leased office buildings and our Raven Rock Mountain Complex as well.  We have asked, as you come into the door, to have a mask on.  If you don't have a mask or a face covering, one will be provided for you and we've had very few instances where that has been an issue.  In fact, if you walk the halls of the Pentagon here you'll see nearly 100 percent if not close to 100 percent.

There may be one or two exceptions but that's because they're taking a sip of coffee or something.  So we are seeing great behaviors.  We have a well-educated and informed workforce.  They know what they need to do to protect themselves and their family.  And you can see it in the hallways here in the Pentagon.  They are observing those best practices and good behaviors.  Hand hygiene and hand sanitizers, maintaining social distances, and wearing cloth face coverings when they can't maintain social distance.

STAFF:  All right.  Thank you.  And to the room, Meghann.

Q:  What is the breakdown of symptomatic versus asymptomatic positives that you're seeing right now?  The reason I ask is that this 100 percent accountability testing for some units was rolled out like end of April.  May was a pretty stable month for COVID cases but this past few weeks has been huge, 18-20 percent increases week over week.  So how does that stack up?  Are there more asymptomatic people showing up now than there were a month ago?  And what is the -- the breakdown?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So what I would -- I would need to kind of follow up with you to kind of give you a breakdown because you just identified we're doing different testing at different, you know, platforms and different populations.  So I don't have it rolled up as a -- as an aggregate and it probably is more meaningful to be able to break it down to say, for example, it maybe pre-deployment that we've seen symptomatic versus asymptomatic.  Same thing with accessions in basic training.  You know, I will say, for example, the -- the data from the T.R. [USS Theodore Roosevelt] when they did some, you know, some follow up testing there, there were a significant proportion.  I'd have to get back with the -- the exact percentage, you know, that were asymptomatic.  And again that's -- that's not all that surprising if indeed we're testing a cohort.  That is a younger demographic.  We're going to see, you know, more asymptomatics that are apart of that -- that result.  But -- but we can follow up and give you breakdowns.

Q:  I have a follow up for Mr. Hebert too.  So, Florida and California are still a no go for travel but Texas and Arizona who are having these massive spikes still wide open.  Their governors are asking people to stay at home.  They're shutting down bars and restaurants in Arizona.  Is there a possibility that DOD-wide they will go back on the red list?

MR. HEBERT:  So, thanks for the question.

There's -- there's probably a lack of understanding across the population that outside the Department as to what our policy is.  Our policy is tiered so the state has to first meet the gating criteria but once they meet it then we devolve down to the installation assessments.  And as you can imagine, across the entire state of Texas, the -- the outbreak is -- is -- is different.  Right?  In some locations, more rural locations and others, perhaps the metropolitan areas, you have greater spikes.

The installations do their assessments based on local travel restrictions, based on availability of health care, and that sort of thing.  So they then provide that to military department secretary who makes the decision whether or not to lift the travel restrictions.  That's a long way of saying that -- because we don't want to do wholesale closing down and lifting of travel restrictions.  We're going to do it installation by installation.

Q:  And other installations like, for example, Fort Hood, a lot of people like to go out in Austin.  If Austin -- if bars are open in Austin, is there a concern that if you're assigned to Fort Hood that you might be getting sick when you're going out on the weekend?

MR. HEBERT:  Sure.  So all the installation commanders are following local, public health guidance in making sure that -- that as was mentioned earlier.  We have a very well-informed, educated force as is evident by the behavior that they're exhibiting throughout this pandemic.  They're concerned about their family as is the Secretary of Defense and -- and they're doing the sorts of things that are necessary to -- to make their peers and their families safe.  And so we're -- we're seeing very good behavior out of the force.

STAFF:  All right.  We're going to go back to the line.  Lara Seligman?

Q:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.

I'm wondering if you can please give us an update on Operation Warp Speed and the vaccine specifically.  Earlier officials said that -- that you are hoping to get a vaccine by January 2021 and fully distribute it by then.  I'm wondering if that is still your assessment or whether there's been any changes to that timeframe.

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So in terms of Operation Warp Speed and goals that they've established and are working toward.  I think that's best for me to refer to Operation Warp Speed on those particulars.  But in terms of the Department of Defense, I think as -- as many of you know, the Department, you know, as an ongoing basis before COVID, after COVID; we do a lot of military medical related research and development for items that have a, you know, a direct impact on military purposes.  So it's natural that we do research on vaccines, on prophylaxis treatments because we make -- want to make sure if our troops are deployed somewhere that they have that kind of protection against infectious diseases.

So some of the research that we have been doing for military purposes is, you know, is part of the all of government effort.  And so the research we're doing on several vaccine candidates and therapeutic candidates are part of that all of government in Operation Warp Speed effort.  You know, to meet that Operation Warp Speed goal in terms of having enough vaccine available and then also therapeutics.

Q:  And, sorry, if I could just follow up in terms of the antibody tests.  Are -- I -- I understand there was some concern early on that the tests were faulty or not totally accurate.  Has there -- can you give us an update on that as well?  Do you have more confidence in antibody tests these days?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So that's actually one of the areas that the Department and others are looking at in terms of what is the -- the -- the type of antibody test and capability that we want to see.  And what I mean by that is, it's -- it's kind of a multi-step.  Number one you -- you want to see if someone who's been infected has the antibodies associated with that but more importantly it is -- what we're after the -- the neutralizing antibodies.  Or the antibodies -- the type of antibodies and the volume or concentration of the antibodies that can actually fight off the infection.  And we are not at a place where, you know, we -- there is a go-to test that we believe has that kind of accuracy, but that is one of the areas that the Department is -- is in the middle of researching to come, you know, to come back with a product.  A solution that will give us that kind of -- kind of definitive information to make decisions on.

STAFF:  All right.  Back to here in the room.  Nazira?

Q:  Nazira Karima, Afghan journalist.  My question is regarding a U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  The question is what sort of special coronavirus safeguards are in place for U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So troops in Afghanistan, -- a couple of things.  We have the Department wide guidance by which before troops get deployed to an overseas location.  That, for example, that's a combination of testing and then having a period of time where there's restrictive of movement where they are isolated for 14 days.  As a way to make sure that we capture any -- anyone that develops symptoms and infection before they get deployed overseas.  Secondly, we have, you know, widespread testing, you know, for, you know, across the board in terms of operational missions.

And so, for example, with accessions a similar approach, we -- it varies by military department and -- and location.  But, in general, it would be something where before a smaller group of -- of trainees or deployed individuals is put out to a larger population, they are -- they are tested.  They are kept isolated for 14 days and -- and then once they test out of that, being testing negative, they would then go out to a larger -- the larger pool of either trainees or a deployed unit.

STAFF:  All right.  Back to the line.  Jeff Schogol?

Q:  Thank you so much for doing this.

Back on May 22nd, OSD said there had been a total of 152 positive cases at the Pentagon Reservation.  Since that information is available, can you please provide an update?  Your most recent update of the positive cases at the Pentagon Reservation.

Thank you.

MR. MUIR:  Mr. Schogol, this is Tom Muir again, the Director of Washington Headquarters Services.

I mentioned earlier, we roll up our numbers for all positive cases on the Pentagon Reservation to the Joint Staff and those are reported as a roll up by break down of services, civilians, contractors and dependents.  And that roll up is available both publicly and we can get you a copy of the latest roll up.

Q:  Thank you.  I'm asking specifically for the Pentagon Reservation and since you provided this information before, I'm hoping you can kindly do so again.

MR. MUIR:  And I'll take that one for action.  Thank you, sir.

STAFF:  All right.  Are there any additional questions?  Jim.

Q:  Hi.

Building on the vaccine question.  When will -- when will service members get the vaccine?  Are they going to be among the first group to get it?  I'm going to show you how old I am.  I remember the Swine Flu vaccination back in 1976 and service members got the Swine Flu thing before anybody else in America did as sort of a test.  Is -- is that what's going to happen with this?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So, the determination of -- obviously the first task is completing the research.  After we complete the research, then it's really and when I say we, I don't mean just the Department but across the board, you know, the activities Operation Warp Speed is doing on their own sponsored research with manufacturers.  But it's first to complete the -- the clinical trials that are required.  Then to get FDA approval to use it in a, you know, a limited fashion as part of the overall development.  And then, you know, finally is this a vaccine a product that can be widely used.

 At that stage, you know, based upon what the, you know, what the product is, what it's efficacy is, what the situation of the country is, then we'd be looking to Operation Warp Speed to -- to determine and, you know, how do we allocate that?  You know, what are the priorities populations?  Be it front-line health care workers, you know, be it a certain demographic, where does, you know, where does the military, you know fit into that?  But we're not -- we're not there yet but that will be something that will have to be determined once we get closer to having a vaccine available.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  All right.  We have a little more time.  Barbara.

Q:  Can I just follow up?

However it is allocated for your own decision-making, do you anticipate --two questions -- do you anticipate this being a mandatory vaccine for U.S. troops?  And I just wanted to come back one last time to what Meghann was asking about symptomatic versus asymptomatic, especially on the increased cases you're seeing.  What type -- are you -- give us some perspective.  Are you concerned and why, or why not, about the increases you're seeing in the -- amongst the military in these civilian hotspot locations?  I take it they're not all asymptomatic.

MR. MCCAFFERY:  Correct.  Correct.

Q:  So give us a little more context on that and is this going to be a mandatory vaccine?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So on the -- on the context in terms of asymptomatic and symptomatic, again what we're seeing which would not be surprising that if you do more testing of -- of large groups of people and a big chunk of those are folks that are not presenting with symptoms, so they're asymptomatic.  Those typically, you know, not across the board, but tend to be the younger demographic and so would not -- it's not surprising to us that we're seeing an uptick in infection rates, particularly where we're seeing it in a local community.

And a lot of that, and again I'd have to get back to you in terms of breakdowns but a lot of that is tied to those who are asymptomatic and so, it's -- it is a data point.  You know, as Mr. Muir and Mr. Hebert has pointed out.  It's a data point that we make sure the -- it's not a -- a -- an across-the-board, aggregate intervention or action steps.  It is based upon what's happening in that -- at that local installation, that mission and that community as to what we're seeing and what would that -- what would that lead us to do either differently, in terms of public health mitigation measures.  Again, access to the installation, really, frankly, in terms of following a lot of the CDC guidance.

Q:  So folks who are asymptomatic could still transmit the disease?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  Correct.  But --

Q:  You are concerned.

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So -- so -- so --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So, we would be concerned with -- with any identification of new infections but we -- we are taking the same measures that the public health community writ-large would take.  So if we're doing more testing, of asymptomatics and we find people that are infected, then they are isolated and we do contact tracing, just like what is being done in the community.  So that is a normal, you know, established process.  The Department, again, not just for COVID but for decades we have a very strong public health surveillance apparatus and policies that will guide us.  And so it's about when we get that data and we see an uptick, it is -- we're going to intervene.  We're going to make sure that -- that person, if they need care, gets care.  If they need to be isolated, they're going to be isolated and we'll do the appropriate contact tracing in order to -- to contain any further spread of the infection.

Q:  Let me just ask, do you have a sense that any of this is coming through in these geographic areas you mentioned through interaction with the local community, being out on the town, going to shops, going to the big box.  Is it -- even if they're asymptomatic, is it coming through interaction with these hotspot communities?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  So that's -- that's one of the things that we're looking at.  Again, based upon the targeted installation and community, looking that the data that we're seeing from, you know, our population.  What is the connection to what's happening in local community and therefore, what would we need to do in partnership with that local community in terms of those further public health mitigation factors.  But, again, our core approach is we want to make sure we're using data and providing guidance and factors to consider, that can be made, you know, at the local level, tailored to that particular situation.

STAFF:  And I think we still have some time left.  Do we have any callers on the line that have any follow up?  All right.  Well, take -- take one here in the room.  We'll go with Meghann first.

Q:  Kind of a  -- this kind of what Barbara was asking.  But where you're seeing upticks, right, are places that are reopening and so no matter what the rules are on an installation, you can go out in town and go to a bar and not necessarily wear a mask if you're a service member.  And then you can go back and bring that to your family to, you know, to the motor pool on Monday.  And when we first started having this conversation about reopening installations General Hyten had said, well, installation commanders can always be tighter.  You know, your chain of command can always be tighter than what the local laws are.

Are we seeing that? Are we seeing military commanders say, I don't care if you -- if you can legally go to the bar out in town.  I don't want you to go or it's I don't care if you don't have to wear a mask in this state, you will wear a mask?  Because cases even with more testing, cases shouldn't be going up if everybody is staying safe.  They shouldn't be going up on this level.  So clearly, there are people in the military who are taking advantage of the fact that they can go out in town and not wear a mask and go to a bar in some of these places.  And then that is spiking your numbers.  Is there any thought to pushing down policy that says we're not just going to stay in line with what the city says, we know better.

MR. MCCAFFERY:  Yes, our -- our overall guidance in terms of installation by installation, I don't know if Mr. Hebert has, kind of, some of the -- the status of, you know, base by base.  But that is a core part of our guidance is what is the data, you know, both with our population on -- in an installation.  What's happening in local community to either -- either be more stringent or less stringent based upon that local commander’s, you know, mission and goal.

Q:  They can but will they and will they get pressure from higher up if those results are not being seen?

MR. MCCAFFERY:  I fully believe that local commanders are going to make the right decision both for the health and wellness of their active duty, their civilian employees, the families of active duty and to make sure that they can meet their mission.  That they will take the necessary action using the Department's guidance to make that local -- local decision and whether or not it is exactly aligned to what's happening in the -- in the local community.

MR. HEBERT:  Later on you'll receive an update from us on the number of installations that have lifted travel restrictions.  One of the criteria for lifting travel restrictions is to move below health protection condition Charlie, which is all the things that we've been talking about to make sure that the troops and their families are safe.  As of right now, only 70 have met the -- the criteria for lifting travel restrictions and so it gives you some idea out of 231, let's see where we're at, out of 231 major installations, 70 have lifted it.  So it will give you some sense of -- of what they're doing.

Q:  Yes.  But that doesn't control anybody's behavior off base.

MR. HEBERT:  No but they're being -- I mean, we believe based on the results that we've seen thus far that the population has been well-informed and that service members are not willing to risk their families.  And they're doing the kinds of things to -- to keep themselves and their families safe.  And so -- and commanders, you know, this is not something that just came up with the pandemic.  Commanders everyday, throughout their careers have been making calls and -- and talking to their troops and -- and making sure they understood the necessity of making informed choices about what they do off duty.  And so --

Q:  They're saying, you can't go to this bar.  You can't go to this restaurant.  The question is, is that happening now because of COVID and not just because of other shenanigans that would be going on?

MR. HEBERT:  What we're seeing is that they're -- they're continuing to maintain very high standards with regard to the safety.  Right?  So the health protection conditions for the majority of the installations out there are still fairly high, ramped up which tells us that they are.

STAFF:  We have time for one more question.

Q:  Sir, just to build on that so the local commanders who (inaudible).  I'm just wondering how this changes assignments overseas.  There are a lot of countries, for example, that don't want Americans there right now.  They are closing the borders.  How has that complicated your -- your job and -- or has it complicated your job?

MR. HEBERT:  Well, thank you.

So, it is -- it's not a complication as much as it is -- we have to be able to communicate widely.  Right?  So the commander at Lackland Air Force Base needs to understand what the conditions are in Germany if they have a troop that's getting ready to -- to transit to Germany and making that information available at the local level has been a key component to this.  The local travel restrictions is a significant factor in whether or not travel is lifted.  You know, moving across country or across to another country is difficult enough for our families.

And what we don't want to do is put them in place, in circumstance where it's not conducive to setting up a household.  That they can't, you know, go look at houses or rent a place or get access to central services that you would need in able to establish a household.  So -- so all of that is part of the criteria that the installation commander has to judge before making a recommendation to the Secretary of the Military Department to lift the travel restrictions.

STAFF:  Well, that concludes the Q&A session.

Gentlemen, do you have anything that you'd like to add or -- thank you.

Thank you again for joining us.  Have a good day.