Democrats press Esper on ‘concerning’ rise in Pentagon’s COVID-19 cases

A group of Senate Democrats is reviving its concerns about the Pentagon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing a spike in cases in July.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the nine senators called reports of a rise in cases among service members “concerning.”

“We are pleased to see that the department is taking some precautionary measures to address the spread of the virus, but are concerned that the department is still not properly prioritizing the health and well-being of our service members,” they wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, the Pentagon has reported a total of 53,033 coronavirus cases connected to the department, including 36,600 cases in the military.

There have been a total of 80 deaths reported across the department, including six service members. Of the troops who have died, one was an active-duty sailor, while the others were reservists or National Guardsmen. 

The senators specifically highlighted that the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the Pentagon grew by more than 21,000 in July, a more than 100 percent increase.

The letter was organized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and co-signed by Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Patty Murray (Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Ed Markey (Mass.).

The latest letter follows one sent in April by the same group of senators — plus Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who has since become the Democratic vice presidential nominee — that sparked a fierce response by the Pentagon.

In the April letter, the senators expressed “grave concern” with how the Pentagon was handling the pandemic, citing incidents such as the outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and images of Marines standing close together in long lines without face masks to get haircuts to comply with grooming standards.

The April letter elicited a six-paragraph statement from the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, a rebuke from Esper during a Pentagon press briefing and a letter from Esper to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

The Pentagon also replied directly to the senators in May in a letter released Thursday by Warren’s office.

“It is unfortunate that your letter used inaccurate media reports that have been discredited to unfairly portray the department while we are in the middle of the COVID-19 fight,” Robert Hood, the then-assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, wrote in the May response.

“To be clear, what we have done is work with some of the leading health care experts in the military and throughout the government to find the right balance of protecting our people and protecting America,” he added.

The Pentagon declined Thursday to comment on the senators’ newest letter, with spokesperson Jessica Maxwell saying that “as with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter.”

In the new letter, the senators said they were “surprised” Esper would “deflect our concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on readiness and morale.” They cited Esper’s comment in his letter to Inhofe that their earlier letter “does not respect the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently deployed across the nation.”

“To be clear: our motivation is to protect the health and wellbeing of service members and their families, and our concerns are with you and the civilian leadership at DoD who are responsible for keeping American service members and their families safe and ready to accomplish their missions,” the Democratic senators wrote.

“While we understand the desire to write off the series of ongoing COVID-19-related problems in the DoD [Department of Defense] as a byproduct of ‘inaccurate media reports,’ and that DoD cannot prevent all cases of COVID-19, the fact remains that cases within the Department are rising at an alarming rate,” they added.

In addition to the thousands of COVID-19 cases tied to the department, the senators said that dozens of U.S. troops deployed to South Korea have tested positive for the virus when they arrived from the United States, and new cases among U.S. troops in Japan prompted the Japanese defense minister to accuse “the U.S. military of lax coronavirus controls.”

“Ensuring American service members and dependents do not have COVID-19 before traveling abroad must be of paramount concern to DoD leadership to maintain trust with partners and allies,” the senators wrote.

The Democrats said the May letter from Hood did not answer the specific questions in their April letter. They reiterated that they want answers to those dozen questions, including what the department’s current plan to address the pandemic is while continuing operations and protecting troops’ health, whether the department knows how many service members actually have the virus given asymptomatic cases, and what the department’s plan is for long-term mitigation in the event of future outbreaks.

“Congress stands ready to support the department, but we cannot do so if basic questions are not answered regarding DoD’s response,” they wrote. “We know you share our desire to protect U.S. service members, DoD civilians and their families while maintaining the highest possible readiness.”