Pentagon Warns Troops Against Travel to China in New Coronavirus Guidance

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Customer wears face mask Hong Kong, China
A customer wears face mask as she picks up a canned food from a nearly empty shelf in a grocery store on January 31, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

The Department of Defense issued guidance Friday to all troops and civilian personnel on the coronavirus outbreak, warning against travel to China while stating that the risk of infection currently was low.

The general directive approved by Defense Secretary Mark Esper aligned with guidance already issued by the Centers for Disease Control, the State Department and other agencies, and will be followed up by more specific instructions from the regional combatant commands, DoD said.

Although the risk of infection outside China remains low, troops and DoD civilian personnel needed urgent advice on "precautions they should take, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the virus," Esper said in statement accompanying the DoD directive.

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He said that DoD continued "to work closely with our interagency partners as we monitor the situation and protect our service members and their families, which is my highest priority."

The directive reinforced warnings from other agencies against travel to China and added that "This outbreak is of high-risk to travelers and there are no precautions available to protect against the identified increased threat."

Following CDC guidelines, the directive advised all DoD personnel to wash their hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and avoid contact with those who are sick.

If they've recently returned from China in the last 14 days, and feel sick with fever, cough or difficulty breathing, they should "seek medical care immediately," the directive said. However, "Before going to a doctor's office or emergency room, call ahead and them about the recent travel and symptoms."

To date, six confirmed cases of coronavirus, officially called novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), have been detected in the U.S.

According to Chinese authorities, the death toll in China from coronavirus has risen to at least 213, and the number of confirmed cases was approaching 10,000.

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that China was prepared to send charter flights worldwide to take home residents of central Hubei province, which includes the city of Wuhan, considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, China's Xinhua news agency reported.

Wang also expressed confidence in China's ability to contain the epidemic during a phone call with Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who has been trying to arrange a charter flight to Wuhan to evacuate Canadian citizens, Xinhua reported.

On Wednesday, the U.S. evacuated about 200 citizens from Wuhan, mostly State Department employees and dependents, via a charter flight that took them to March Air Reserve base in southern California where they were being monitored at base housing.

During their stay at March, which will last at least three days, the evacuees will have no contact with DoD personnel and will be supervised by the Department of Health & Human Services, officials said.

Officials initially said that the Wuhan evacuees were not under quarantine. Dr. Cameron Kaiser, health officer for California's Riverside County, said in a Thursday release that one of the evacuees was placed in quarantine when he or she tried to leave the base early.

That individual will now have to remain at March for at least 14 days, the incubation period for coronavirus, Kaiser said.

The State Department said Thursday that "additional evacuation flights" were being planned for hundreds of U.S. citizens still stranded in Wuhan. Those flights could begin departing as early as Monday.

The Defense Department has not yet responded to queries on whether additional evacuees would be temporarily housed at March or other military facilities.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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