Asian media reported that eight out of 150 Thai army soldiers tested positive for the new coronavirus days after returning to Thailand from participation in a big Schofield Barracks field training exercise on Oahu.
About 5,500 U.S. soldiers took part in Lightning Forge, which was held July 7-21 around Oahu. It was billed as the 25th Infantry Division’s first large-scale training exercise since a gradual return to training in May due to the virus.
Asked Tuesday about any Hawaii Army coronavirus cases related to the exercise, division spokesman Lt. Col. Adam Hallmark said in an email, “I cannot speak specifically to any numbers or any specific soldier, but what I can tell you is that we are evaluating the force health protection measures that were put in place during Lightning Forge.”
He said the Army “implemented contact tracing and increased testing among our soldiers” to help determine an overall health assessment of the Hawaii soldiers.
“We understand that reports of possible COVID-19 cases in Hawaii are concerning,” Hallmark said, “and in accordance with Defense Department policy, we continue to share all available information within Hawaii public health channels to ensure the local community remains safe and any appropriate measures are taken to reduce the spread.”
Defense Department policy continues to be that COVID-19 cases are not reported at installation or state levels out of concern for operational security.
The state Health Department previously said it was asked by the military not to release statewide COVID-19 military numbers.
But there are inconsistencies in the military reporting policy. The focus of the Hawaii exercise was on the 3,700 soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team as it prepares for culminating training in October at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
The brigade reported it had three coronavirus cases, including family members, prior to the exercise. Col. Neal Mayo, the unit’s commander, said July 15 that 43 soldiers “were in the moderate-risk category; they exhibited symptoms that could be related to COVID” and were removed from training and contact.
Five soldiers were tested for the virus, and all had negative results, he said.
BenarNews, an online service associated with Radio Free Asia, reported that six Thai soldiers tested positive Friday — two days after returning from the Hawaii training. Eleven were hospitalized and checked after displaying flu-like symptoms.
Chinese news agency Xinhua, citing the Thai government, said two more Thai soldiers were infected as of Tuesday and had been in quarantine since their return from Hawaii.
Mayo said during the training that a “very deliberate approach” was taken to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 with the creation of a training bubble at the remote Kahuku Training Area.
“So we obviously deployed directly from Schofield Barracks out here to the training area, and that’s where we have been for the last about 10 or 12 days now — having not interacted with anyone outside — and so we believe that that sort of bubble-type approach, which we continue to apply at every level, is helping us mitigate the spread,” Mayo said at the time.
Soldiers in confined spaces like command tents wore masks, but in the field they didn’t if they could maintain 6 feet of separation.
“Generally speaking, we should be operating in a distributed manner anyway,” Mayo said. “I mean, that’s the tactically correct approach, and so, given that approach, we should be socially distancing in an appropriate manner.”
The United States and Thailand signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833, formalizing diplomatic relations. The Asian nation is a key security ally.
Capt. Phadungdet Porkachang, a spokesman for the Thai company training with Schofield soldiers, said July 15 that it was the first exercise for him “with force on force of this scale.” He added that it provided “so much experience to me and my men.”
The unit is expected to accompany the 2nd Brigade to the Joint Readiness Training Center.
“Our need to maintain a mission-ready force remains more important than ever, and we cannot afford to simply wait for COVID-19 to go away,” Hallmark said. “Part of the demand for maintaining mission readiness requires training with our partners and allies. Thailand is a key partner and our most enduring ally in Asia.”