The U.S. has decided to withdraw nearly 1,000 U.S. citizen contractors from Afghanistan amid the growing novel coronavirus threat in a country ill-equipped to cope with the pandemic, according to a top Pentagon official.
"We just issued a memo that directs contracting officers to support a U.S. Forces Afghanistan memo to redeploy at-risk contractor employees due to insufficient medical capability in-country," said Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.
"We project this number to be less than 1,000, but we are committed to taking care of them," she said at a Pentagon briefing Monday.
The nearly 1,000 to be withdrawn would come from the more than 10,500 U.S. citizens among the more than 26,000 Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. Central Command report in January.
Lord gave no timeline for the withdrawal and did not say how many contractors had tested positive for coronavirus or shown symptoms, but the announcement follows the evacuation of three contractors from Afghanistan to Germany aboard an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III specially outfitted to isolate infectious patients.
"This marks the first operational use of the system that was developed for the 2014 Ebola crisis, but was never used until now," Lord said.
She said the evacuations are part of continuing efforts by the Pentagon's Joint Staff, U.S. Transportation Command and the Air Force "to ensure that we can safely transport COVID-19 patients from overseas locations to the United States."
In addition, "We are absolutely committed to the safety of the air crew and medical support staff during these missions," Lord said.
In a phone briefing from Brussels on April 16, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of NATO and U.S. European Command, said the C-17 with the three American contractors aboard landed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on April 10.
"This was a first for our U.S. Department of Defense from Afghanistan to Europe," Wolters said.
He did not give an update on the conditions of the three contractors, but said they were taken to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for treatment.
According to Lord, the C-17 carried a Transport Isolation System, or TIS, originally developed in 2014 to transport Ebola patients but never used.
The TIS is a tent-like, infectious disease containment enclosure that allows patients to be treated aboard the aircraft while protecting aircrew members from exposure, according to Air Mobility Command (AMC).
Before the evacuations from Afghanistan were announced, the Air Force said in a release that AMC had developed a COVID-19 Patient Movement Plan.
In coordination with U.S. Transportation Command, "we've produced a detailed plan that guides our crews on how to safely and effectively move ill patients to a location where they can receive greater care, all while providing protection for our aircrew, medical personnel and aircraft," Brig. Gen. Jimmy Canlas, 618th Air Operations Center commander, said in the Air Force release.
As reported by Military.com last week, the Air Force and AMC are also testing methods for the possible transport of dozens of COVID patients at a time aboard aircraft without using the TIS isolation tents.
The tests earlier in April by Air Mobility Command with researchers from the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency involved airflow experiments on six different aircraft.
The goal was to analyze how air travels through a cargo hold using specialized, traceable droplets, said Maj. Dave Sustello, AMC's Test and Evaluation Squadron operations officer.
In its latest coronavirus report Tuesday, the DoD said there were a total of 5,575 confirmed cases among service members, civilians, dependents and contractors worldwide.
The DoD does not give locations for the positive cases but said that 420 were among contractors, and 58 of them were hospitalized.
The U.S. has not given an update on the number of coronavirus cases among U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan since March 24, when the NATO Resolute Support mission said there were four cases, without stating whether they were among U.S. or coalition troops.
Also on March 24, Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a plea by Twitter and by teleconference with Afghan officials to the Afghan people to stop fighting and turn to combating the coronavirus.
"All sides need to reduce violence so we can stay focused on preventing the spread of this virus," Miller said.
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, there were 1,092 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Afghanistan as of midday Tuesday and 36 deaths.
Afghanistan's Health Ministry reported the same figures Tuesday, according to local Tolo News, but the spread of the disease was difficult to determine in a nation with a precarious health care system lacking in basic equipment for testing and treatment.
There is no lab to analyze coronavirus tests for troops in Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO officials reported last month, resulting in the airlift of samples to a U.S. military testing facility in Germany for analysis.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.