DoD Hotline Gets Flood of COVID-19 Exposure Complaints

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Members of the New Jersey Army National Guard are taught procedures at a COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site.
FILE PHOTO – Members of the New Jersey Army National Guard are taught procedures at a COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., March 23, 2020 (U.S. Air National Guard/Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

In just one month of the novel coronavirus pandemic, a Defense Department hotline created to report legal violations, fraud and abuse received nearly 150 complaints alleging improper protective protocols to stop the spread of the disease.

From Feb. 26 to March 31, the DoD Hotline received 146 complaints related to COVID-19, according to a semi-annual report to Congress published May 28 by the Defense Department Inspector General.

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"Allegations ranged from leaders or personnel not practicing social distancing and endangering or infecting others to allegations that health care personnel were not being properly used or properly protected from the virus," the report states.

Of those complaints, 83 were directed at the military services; 27 were sent directly to the DoD IG; 11 each targeted agencies affiliated with the office of the Secretary of Defense and other DoD agencies and field activities; and 12 concerned non-DoD agencies.

"The most serious cases alleging actual infection were referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Defense Health Agency (DHA), and the respective DoD Component," the report states.

While it did not break down the outcome of all complaints, it said none of the complaints alleging actual disease transmission through negligence were substantiated by investigating officials as of March 31, the end of the reporting period.

For the length of the period, which began Oct. 1, 2019, officials received a total of 8,041 hotline contacts, up from 7,381 the previous reporting period.

As the military and DoD agencies have grappled with the challenge of creating new disease containment and social distancing protocols in light of COVID-19, which forced much of the nation into a shutdown, various complaints have arisen about prevention shortcomings.

The military services have largely determined their own approaches to virus prevention, and measures vary from base to base. The Air Force implemented "pods" at some bases, grouping small clusters of airmen together to contain any outbreaks while still allowing troops to train in close proximity; the Army took a similar approach with "bubbles."

The Navy had several high-profile outbreaks on ships, most notably aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. At one point, more than half of all Navy virus cases were aboard the carrier, and one sailor died.

As states implement reopening protocols and virus numbers subside, the Defense Department is now relaxing some of its own policies. A global military travel ban has been lifted for 38 states, the District of Columbia and five countries, the Pentagon announced Monday.

The new case rate within the Defense Department has begun to slow, although numbers indicate continued disease spread. As of Monday, 10,822 DoD-connected personnel had contracted COVID-19; 468 had been hospitalized; 6,328 had recovered; and 36 had died.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

Related: Here Are the States and Countries Where Military Travel Restrictions Have Been Lifted

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