U.S. Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in South Korea, said Friday that trends in South Korea, where there are more than 20,000 U.S. troops stationed, “are trending downward and looking good” in terms of the spread of the Chinese coronavirus.
“Currently, South Korea trends are trending downward and looking good,” he said at a Pentagon video-conference briefing on Friday.
Among the USFK community, he said only nine out of 145 tested positive for coronavirus. That includes one service member and two family members, and the rest were South Korean employees or contractors. All nine lived off-base, he said.
“Out of a population of 58,000 that touches U.S. Forces Korea daily — that’s a pretty low number,” he said. “Less than 1/100th of a percent of positive cases.”
Abrams said at the peak of the epidemic in South Korea, USFK had 392 people in self-quarantine, and today, there are 55 people in self-quarantine.
“We have seen a downward trend for the last two weeks,” he said.
The general shared how USFK was able to stop the spread of coronavirus among its four installations in South Korea, close to China, where the novel coronavirus originated.
He said on January 27, when the outbreak in China started to gain traction and national attention, USFK enhanced 24/7 monitoring and assessing.
On January 28, USFK initiated a data call for service members who had traveled to or through China.
On February 1, USFK raised health protection condition to low, or Alpha, and implemented control measures, developed communication plans, established quarantine facilities, and checked medical inventories.
On February 2, USFK mandated service members who had visited China on or after January 19 to a 14-day self-quarantine. He said that included 77 members at its peak.
On February 11, the data call was increased to other nations, including Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
On February 20, the health protection condition was raised to moderate, or Bravo, and travel outside Korea was limited, as well as travel to and from the South Korean city of Daegu; Defense Department school in Daegu was canceled; all after-school programs and activities were canceled peninsula-wide; and all meetings, formations, and training events larger than 20 people were canceled. USFK also requested medical resupply and kept in close coordination with the local government.
On February 24, USFK had its first positive test — a retired soldier’s widow in Daegu.
On February 26, as the number of cases in the country rose to more than 1,200, a USFK service member tested positive. The health protection condition was raised to high, or Charlie, and off-post activities were limited to official business and travel only; the workforce was reduced to mission-essential people only; telework was implemented; and visitor access to bases was limited to official business only.
The restrictions led to a 60 percent reduction in entry to USFK installations, which Abrams said further reduced the potential spread to USFK.
In addition, USFK limited off-post excursions to necessary duties only such as traveling to and from work, grocery shopping, pharmacy runs, and medical and dental appointments, and placed bars, clubs, large social gatherings, eat-in dining and movie theaters off limits, as well as sought to minimize public transportation. It also enhanced screening procedures at every entry control point.
USFK also implemented social gathering restrictions and social distancing, limited those attending meetings, increased space between seats, maximized teleconferencing as much as possible, frequently cleaned used items and areas throughout the day, and eventually closed all Pentagon schools across South Korea, instead implementing teleteaching.
Abrams said two weeks ago, he left work because he did not feel well. The next day, he said, he felt better and had no symptoms and continued working.
“If you want to kill this virus, it requires a fundamental change in lifestyle, and we are all living this fundamental change. There are no exceptions for rank or position,” he said.
Abrams said what he believes helped to stop the spread of the virus in USFK was treating it like a combat operation.
“It is an operation. We are conducting 24/7 around the clock operations and have been since 27 January,” he said. “We’ve approached it similarly to how we behave in combat.”
“We all have a shared and personal responsibility to contain this virus, and protect each other,” he said.