A 61-year-old veteran widow living in South Korea who tested positive for the novel coronavirus is believed to be the first case of the virus in the U.S. military worldwide among either service members or dependents, Lt. Col. Christian Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed Monday.
In a statement, U.S. Forces Korea said that South Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (SKCDC) had confirmed that a U.S. military dependent in southeastern Daegu, considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak on the peninsula, had "tested positive for COVID-19, making this the first time a USFK individual has tested positive" for coronavirus.
The woman who tested positive is the widow of a retired soldier, according to the USFK. She visited the post exchange at Camp Walker outside Daegu on Feb. 12 and Feb. 15, USFK said, but there are no immediate indications that others were infected.
Base authorities are seeking to determine who the woman may have come in contact with at the post exchange and whether they might be at risk.
"Korea's Centers for Disease Control and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed," USFK said in the statement.
"USFK encourages all personnel to continue to practice strict proper hygiene procedures as the best ways to prevent the spread of viruses and protect the USFK population," the statement said.
As a precaution, "USFK has raised the risk level to 'high' for USFK peninsula-wide as a prudent measure to protect the force" of about 28,500 service members in South Korea, the statement said.
Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the USFK commander, pushed back against local reports that the coronavirus case in the military may have involved a family member of an active-duty USFK soldier.
Abrams said on Twitter that "to be clear, this is a 60+ year old widow of a retired soldier. We were saddened to hear of her of contracting the virus. We pray for her recovery."
Several bases in the U.S., including Travis Air Force Base in California and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, have served as temporary housing facilities for U.S. citizens returning from China, the epicenter of the virus, but to date there have been no other reports of coronavirus among service members or dependents.
Pentagon officials have repeatedly stressed that no U.S. military personnel will have contact with citizens returning from China, who are under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea increased sharply over the weekend, with more than 230 new cases reported to bring the total to 833, South Korean health officials reported Monday. There also have been at least seven confirmed deaths from the virus.
South Korea President Moon Jae-in updated the anti-virus alert level to "Red" over the weekend, giving authorities the ability to close schools and cut services as needed.
U.S. Army Garrison Daegu announced Sunday that USFK, along with the Department of Defense Education Activity, had determined base schools would be closed through Feb. 28 in response to the virus outbreak.
In addition to civilians, 13 members of the South Korean military have been among the new cases reported, and a total of 7,500 troops have been quarantined as a precaution, South Korea's defense ministry said Monday.
There are now 10 COVID-19 cases in the South Korea's Army and one each in its Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, the defense ministry said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.