Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, who leads U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington that a “fair amount” of the military’s 35,000 soldiers in Italy are “just sitting at home right now trying to avoid the coronavirus.”
His comments come as Italy is experiencing the largest outbreak of coronavirus outside of Asia, with a reported 300 cases and 11 deaths.
In the city of Vicenza, Italy, where the United States has 6,000 to 7,000 troops plus thousands of their family members, the Army has closed on-base schools, child care centers, gyms, and churches after a spike in coronavirus cases across the northeastern region.
Military personnel have been told not to travel to areas where clusters of confirmed cases have emerged, including in the Lombardy region, where the outbreak has been most prevalent thus far, and in Vo’ Euganeo. So far, no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Vicenza.
The closures are currently scheduled to end at the start of March, but Wolters said Tuesday that there was a “50-50” possibility that the closures in Vicenza would be extended beyond the original date.
Wolters said that the military is also anticipating an increase in the number of reported cases in Germany, which has so far confirmed 16 cases of the virus, and is preparing a response should the virus gain traction.
The general said that officials “anticipate the need may arise” for travel restrictions in the country, which is home to the largest U.S. military presence in Europe at more than 33,000 troops, “but that is still to be determined.”
“We are anticipating an increase in the number of cases reported in Germany, and we’re prepared to execute,” he said.
The general’s comments come after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Monday that joint exercises in South Korea, where nearly 600 people have tested positive for the illness, may also need to be “curtailed.”
The country’s Minister of Defense, Kyeong-doo Jeong, added that 13 cases of the coranavirus have been confirmed among South Korean military personnel. On-base schools in Korea were also closed on Feb. 24, and are expected to remain so through Feb. 28.
On Feb. 26, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) announced that the first U.S. soldier had been infected with the virus.
The 23-year-old male, stationed at Camp Carroll in the village of Waegwan, roughly 12 miles from the city of Daegu, is currently in self-quarantine at his residence off-base.
According to the statement, the man had visited Camp Walker, also in Daegu, on Feb. 23 and Camp Carroll between Feb. 21 and Feb. 25.
South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. military are “conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed,” the announcement stated.
South Korea authorities informed the United States on Tuesday that a U.S. Forces Korea dependent living in Daegu tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, prompting the forces to raise the risk level to “high” for personnel peninsula-wide “as a prudent measure to protect the force,” the military said in a statement.
That patient, a 61-year-old female, visited Camp Walker’s Post Exchange on Feb. 12 and 15.