On March 21, when U.S. Army Hawaii had four positive COVID-19 cases, the command emphasized during its nightly Facebook “town hall” update its intent to “continue to be as transparent as possible.”
“With that in mind, we plan to provide the most current number of cases during these community updates,” garrison commander Col. Tom Barrett said.
True to its word, the Army reported its coronavirus cases as the number marched upward to five and then nine and then 12 on March 26 — which is when the tally stopped.
That’s when Defense Secretary Mark Esper outlined plans to stop reporting military COVID-19 cases at the local level, saying operational security could be compromised by doing so.
“What we want to do is give you aggregated numbers. But we’re not going to disaggregate numbers because it could reveal information about where we may be affected at a higher rate than maybe some other places,” Esper told news agency Reuters.
There is a growing call for a return to greater transparency based on the need to address COVID-19 comprehensively.
The Hawaii military numbers should be made public “because that’s how we’re quantifying what we’re doing,” said state Rep. Amy Perruso. “That’s how we’re looking at the curve — and if their (military) curve is spiking, we need to know that. It’s not fair to leave us in the dark about the impact” that the military approach is having to flatten the curve.
Perruso further would like a military breakdown by zip code.
“It seems to me like a lot of (the military’s) normal functioning continues to occur,” she said. “So I think we’ve got to know how that affects their COVID rates, because they live in our communities.”
There’s “valid public interest in knowing the numbers of military personnel confirmed with COVID-19,” added state Rep. Gregg Takayama. “Members of the military and their families aren’t confined to base 24-7. They’re out in the community and can be our neighbors and fellow shoppers. There’s also thousands of civilian workers on military bases every day, and they regularly interact with military personnel.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has Army and Air Force bases in his backyard, took issue with Esper’s prohibition on local COVID-19 case reporting.
“This is a global pandemic, and the public has a right to know,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. The lack of information “is complicating a coordinated pandemic response at the state and federal level,” Nirenberg said.
The Pentagon on March 30 made official Esper’s earlier pronouncement. Each of the services would provide a daily public update — but no reporting at individual unit, base or combatant commands, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said at the time.
There have been exceptions in Hawaii. The Air Force said Friday — four days after the Pentagon edict — that an active-duty airman assigned to Pacific Air Forces at Hickam Field had tested positive for COVID-19.
The Army in Hawaii also reported Friday, in a notice meant to inform parents, that a Fort Shafter child care center employee had tested positive for the virus.
The Navy as a whole had 460 positive cases as of Tuesday — with about 200 sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt down with COVID-19, according to Military Times.
The Army had 361 cases, the Air Force 322 and the Marine Corps 78, the publication reported.
Farah, the Pentagon press secretary, said base commanders “are instructed to continue to work with local community health officials to share information on base community cases.”
Officials said military COVID-19 case information is funneled through Tripler Army Medical Center to the state Department of Health on a daily basis — and the military cases are captured in the daily state totals that are publicized.
But how many military cases make up the state total and what services or commands they are a part of are not made public.
The Health Department “will not report the daily military COVID testing numbers because DOD (U.S. Department of Defense) has asked DOH (state Department of Health) not to release this information,” spokeswoman Janice Okubo said.
Not complying with the request for non-disclosure “would likely affect our access” to the military data, she said.
On March 31, Joe Driskill, president of the Association of Defense Communities, wrote to the defense secretary and asked for greater transparency with COVID-19.
Driskill said the group supports the Pentagon’s “efforts to balance the need for transparency with the operational security imperative of the military.”
“While maintaining this balance is important, the fact is more than 70% of our service members live off base; our installations and military families rely on the people and services of the surrounding community,” he said. “COVID-19 does not recognize fence lines (and) our response requires a ‘one community’ approach that links bases and communities to manage response and recovery.”
Driskill said the intent wasn’t to be prescriptive to the point of suggesting a return to local-level reporting of military COVID-19 cases.
“We understand the need for operational security, because obviously the No. 1 imperative here is to keep us safe,” he said. “But by the same token, again, since (military) installations exist in our communities and state — that relationship needs to be respected as well.”
State Rep. Perruso said that’s not always the case.
The lack of transparency “leads to so much anxiety and fear and hostility,” said the lawmaker, whose district includes Wahiawa. “I have so many people calling me and texting me and messaging me about the behavior of soldiers off duty — and also the perception not just that this is not to be taken seriously (by them), but that there’s a lack of respect for the state policies.”
On that count, military officials from Schofield Barracks to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith have been hammering the message to stay at home and practice social distancing as much as possible.