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Hawaii’s military COVID-19 case count still a mystery

  • COURTESY MICHAEL NII
                                A group believed to be Schofield Barracks soldiers gathered July 23 at White Plains beach.

    COURTESY MICHAEL NII

    A group believed to be Schofield Barracks soldiers gathered July 23 at White Plains beach.

Amid worsening COVID-19 and ongoing concerns about social distancing, the state Health Department continues to follow the lead of the Pentagon in not releasing statewide coronavirus statistics for the military.

“There is an agreement, if you will, between the military and the state that we respect their confidentiality,” Bruce Anderson, director of the Health Department, said at a news conference Monday.

Honolulu City Council member Kym Pine says she gets “a lot” of concern from the community about the lack of military transparency as the COVID-19 totals go up.

“The unfortunate thing is it turns them against the military — which I don’t want,” Pine said.

According to the state, about 43,000 active duty members, 9,600 Guard and Reserve, 60,000 dependents and 20,000 military employees call Hawaii home.

The military, for its part, has been canceling, keeping and/or reviewing some exercises and activities due to COVID-19, and is struggling with it all as it attempts to maintain a ready force of mostly youthful service members who may not be as worried about the virus as some others.

Michael Nii, a retired Army sergeant first class, tried to contact U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii after he spotted what he said was a group of about 50 Schofield Barracks artillery soldiers bunched together, not wearing masks, and not practicing social distancing at White Plains beach on July 23.

They were out of uniform during what appeared to be an informal training day, he said. Nii said he confirmed they were artillery soldiers with a group member.

“Vengeance is not the operative word here,” Nii said about registering the concern. He added that “we all have to do our part. Gatherings like this may prompt beach closures again. We all need to get into the open air, but safety is paramount.”

Lt. Col. Adam Hallmark, a spokesman for the 25th Infantry Division, said he could not immediately verify the group as Schofield soldiers, “but I can tell you that we’re looking into it.”

“Our soldiers are aware of the requirement to adhere to all state and local COVID-19 guidelines” to include wearing masks and practicing social distancing, he said.

The Pentagon previously halted public disclosure of COVID-19 cases at the installation and local level, citing the need to prevent a potential enemy from knowing where there may be a specific weakness.

But since then, the novel coronavirus has spread like wildfire around the world.

“I do understand national security issues. But this is no longer something that’s just happening to one country,” Pine said. “This is in every country. It’s almost part of our life now. So you can’t even say that this is going to affect national security because it’s affecting every military around the world. It is common now.”

Pine added that “no one should have special treatment. If you really care about the health and safety of the people of Hawaii, we all must tackle this virus together.” And that includes the military revealing its coronavirus count, she said she believes.

The military rarely reveals multiple cases, and, more frequently, reports individual cases that have occurred at public places. Recently, that’s included the Camp H.M. Smith gym, a Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps base fast food restaurant and the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Pass and ID office.

Anderson said Monday that the “virus is now widespread on Oahu.” COVID-19 “is entrenched in the community as there are no longer any easily identifiable sources of exposure in many cases.”

He reiterated that the state COVID-19 daily totals do include uniformed and civilian military cases.

“We don’t call them out as being military (but) you’ll see those individuals are reflected in our case counts,” he said. “And we do work closely with the military. Our epidemiologists are regularly in touch with theirs — they keep us informed of what their activities are.”

He did say “there are occasionally (military) outbreaks occurring — families here are COVID positive and so forth, and again, they do report those to us regularly.”

The uncertainty of the totals for the public was put in relief with Thailand reporting nine positive COVID-19 cases among about 150 Thai soldiers who had just returned from exercise Lightning Forge with the 25th Division on Oahu.

The focus of the July 7 to 21 exercise was on the 3,700 soldiers of Schofield’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team as it prepares for culminating training in October at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

The Schofield brigade reported it had three coronavirus cases, including family members, prior to the exercise. As of July 15, midway through, 43 soldiers were in the “moderate-risk category” and exhibited symptoms that might have been COVID-­related.

How many soldiers developed COVID-19, if any, was never made public. Thailand subsequently canceled its plans to go to the higher training with the Hawaii soldiers, according to the Bangkok Post.

Hallmark, the division spokesman, said “we don’t have any immediate, direct determination” of a Hawaii linkage with the Thai coronavirus cases. He added that the 2nd Brigade “remains on track” to go to Fort Polk for the October training.

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