U.S. European Command and NATO are "preparing for worst-case scenarios with respect to the potential spread" of the novel coronavirus virus, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO's supreme commander, said Friday.
Though he did not detail what a worst-case scenario might be, he suggested it would require support from outside the theater. "For months, we have embraced precautionary measures," said Wolters, who doubles as head of EUCOM.
About 35 confirmed cases of coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, have been detected among the 72,000 U.S. troops in Europe and another 2,600 personnel fall into what he described as a "category of concern," Wolters said.
Pentagon officials later said that the "category of concern" troops are in self-isolation after returning from travel or possibly for other reasons.
"So far, the force remains in good shape," Wolters said, adding that readiness has not been affected.
"At this very moment, we have approximately 35 reported cases of the coronavirus" in the ranks," he said. He did not give figures on infections for dependents or other Defense Department personnel in a brief phone conference to the Pentagon.
However, he said that "all of them -- those who have tested positive and those who are in quarantine -- remain in good shape and [are] very, very positive" about overcoming the virus.
Wolters also said that he has seen no indications thus far that Russia or the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are seeking to take advantage of the spread of coronavirus in Europe to advance their positions.
"I haven't, but I'll tell you I'm looking very closely," he said. "But at this point, from my perch, I haven't seen that."
From Portugal in the west, to Romania in the east -- and particularly in Italy and Spain -- the virus has devastated the economies, health care systems and social fabrics of the 29-member NATO alliance. But Wolters stressed that the spread thus far "does not impact the ability of our forces to respond to threats, now or in the future."
"This is serious, serious business," he said, pointing to shift changes among personnel and social distancing being enforced to protect troops.
"U.S. European Command, together with all our NATO allies and partners, is combating the coronavirus with extreme intensity," Wolters said in the phone call from EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the severe curtailment of the Defender Europe 2020 joint military training exercise, once projected to be the largest in Europe in a generation, but Wolters said EUCOM and NATO are seeking to salvage as much benefit as possible from the scaled-back exercises in several countries.
Defender Europe 2020 was originally envisioned as having about 20,000 troops and their equipment move from the U.S. to Europe for a series of exercises over several months.
As a result, "we'll wind up with a 40%-45% readiness gain as a result of what we are able to do" in Defender Europe 2020, Wolters said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
Read more: The Military's Coronavirus Response