SAN ANTONIO — Early Friday evening, Joint Base San Antonio’s coronavirus web page said 28 military personnel, dependents and retirees had tested positive for COVID-19.
A little later that night, the number vanished from the page.
It wasn’t a computer glitch.
Citing national security, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had ordered military installations around the world to stop disclosing the number of novel coronavirus cases to the media and the public. Instead, the Pentagon and individual military services will release only the totals for the department and each branch.
Esper’s order eliminated a way for residents of communities including San Antonio, home to three major military installations, to know how many troops, families and civilians living or working on the bases, along with retirees using base hospitals, have tested positive for COVID-19 or fallen ill.
“Cover-up is the worst damn thing you can do when you’re having (the) serious issue that we’re having today with COVID-19,” said.Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who was surprised when told of the decision.
Defense, Pentagon Office of Economic Adjustment, Joint Base San Antonio
“The bases are part of San Antonio, so understanding what they’re doing, and how many cases they have, is important to our whole community because they’re not isolated on that base. They come into the city, too, so I think it’s important to know that,” he added.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg also took issue with Esper’s decision.
“I think this is a global pandemic, and the public has a right to know,” he said in an interview Monday.
“The lack of information is complicating a coordinated pandemic response at the state and federal level,” the mayor said, adding that “one of the biggest battles that we have is helping people understand the seriousness of the situation.”
Until it was discontinued, the public daily count from JBSA officials had included brief descriptions of those in the military community testing positive, falling ill and going to a hospital.
An unknown number of JBSA cases also have been part of the daily totals made public by the Metropolitan Health District, which includes them if they’re Bexar County residents without specifying how many are reported by JBSA.
That hasn’t changed, a spokeswoman there, Michelle Vigil, said by email. The joint base continues to share its data with Metro Health and the Defense Department has not issued instructions to treat the information any differently, Vigil said.
Several Pentagon officials agreed.
Even if base commanders are not sharing the numbers with the public, they “are instructed to continue to work with local community health officials to share information on base community cases,” said Defense Department press secretary Alyssa Farah.
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Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, said the military would release only total numbers of cases for each service “in order to protect operational security as we preserve the nation’s combat readiness.”
Hoffman and Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, head of Air Force public affairs, said the reporting to local health authorities continues, because, as Hoffman put it, “ultimately our bases are part of a larger civilian community.”
The first Air Force-wide numbers showed 277 cases among military personnel, dependents and civilian workers at bases around the world as of Sunday afternoon. Of those, 159 were military personnel, up by 59 from the previous report. In all, 22 people were hospitalized, half of them airmen, and 12 had recovered.
Across the entire Defense Department, the tally came to 1,043 — 569 of whom were military personnel.
On Monday night, the National Guard Bureau commander, Gen. Joseph Lengyel, said on Twitter that Army Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok died as a result of COVID-19. He was a physician assistant serving in the New Jersey National Guard.
While the Pentagon was clamping down on releasing COVID-19 caseloads at specific installations, some commanders were still discussing issues related to it.
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On Monday, Maj. Gen. John DeGoes, who commands the 59th Medical Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, told reporters that four Air Force basic trainees there had tested positive for COVID-19, up from just one a week ago. They were in isolation, and five instructors are in quarantine because they had contact with the recruits, he said.
“Our standard approach is we check on them medically twice a day,” DeGoes said. “We would move them to (Brooke Army Medical Center), obviously, if they were sick at all, but they have very low symptoms and so are being isolated away from those who do not have it.”
“Those measures include isolating critical personnel, dividing units into separate cohorts, and aggressively following CDC recommendations,” he said. “We have a comparatively young and fit force and have complete confidence in our ability to carry out all of our key national responsibilities. We appreciate our citizens understanding as we protect operational security and our nation’s readiness.”
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The potential impact on San Antonio of coronavirus cases within the military isn’t known, but the city has one of the biggest defense footprints in the United States. Defense spending in San Antonio is nearly $6 billion a year. Its three bases and Camp Bullis employ 87,384 military and civilian personnel.
San Antonio is also home to many military retirees — 84,405, as of two years ago. Many of them routinely visit the three bases to receive medical care and shop at the commissaries.