Last week the world’s largest naval exercise began off the coast of Hawaii as COVID-19 numbers surge and Oahu institutes new lockdown measures. As international ships arrived for the biennial RIMPAC wargames, controversy has surrounded both the military and state’s decision not to publicly reveal Hawaii’s infection numbers of troops and their family members.
The state considers service members essential workers and federal and state officials have insisted the secrecy is for security reasons.
But elsewhere across the Pacific, U.S. military infection rates are regularly reported in Guam, Japan and Korea.
“At the very onset of COVID, we did have the authority to release at the island level (in Hawaii),” said Maj. Randy Ready, a spokesman for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
During a March 21 town hall streamed on Facebook, Col. Tom Barrett told community members that the Army had four confirmed cases of the virus in Hawaii.
Barrett said he planned to “continue to be as transparent as possible” and “provide the most current number of cases during these community updates.”
That didn’t last long. Orders soon came down from Defense Secretary Mark Esper to commanders to stop releasing local numbers.
Each military branch now releases service wide aggregate numbers through the Pentagon. The Pentagon did not respond to Civil Beat’s questions for this story.
Esper insists secrecy at the local level is critical to avoid revealing vulnerabilities to America’s adversaries. In late March Esper told Reuters the Pentagon would not “disaggregate numbers because it could reveal information about where we may be affected at a higher rate than maybe some other places.”
“Personally I don’t find that a convincing argument, because I think the question of transparency, especially with the local communities, is much more important,” said Pauline Shanks Kaurin, the Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. “The ethical issue here is what obligations does the Pentagon have to transparency in a national health crisis.”
According to state data, Hawaii is home to about 43,000 active duty troops, 60,000 military dependents, 9,600 National Guardsmen and reservists and 20,000 Department of Defense civilian employees and contractors.
Earlier this month, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published a story that referenced an Aug. 6 memo by INDOPACOM commander Adm. Phil Davison that said about 204 service members and family members were among the 2,914 people in Hawaii diagnosed at the time with the virus — roughly 7% of Hawaii’s total infections.
But Davidson’s memo had been intended only for other commanders. “It wasn’t meant for public release, it did get public though,” said Ready.
Hawaii State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park confirmed to Civil Beat by email that the numbers cited in Davidson’s memo were accurate.
But while Hawaii’s Department of Health has access to the military’s numbers and includes them in the state’s total infection numbers, it doesn’t publicly differentiate between military and civilian cases under an agreement with the Pentagon.
“We have an agreement with DOD to not share the particulars of their cases publicly for the purposes of national security,” said Park. “If we do, they will shut down any sharing of information — something we wish to avoid.”
Shanks Kaurin, the War College faculty member, said that the Pentagon’s insistence on concealing even relatively low infection numbers in Hawaii — which seem to indicate successful mitigation rather than reveal vulnerabilities — is a troubling example of the Pentagon’s increasingly secretive culture. She argued that “security” doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation.
“Absent another reason, what this looks like is you’re hiding information from the local communities who presumably have a right to know what the danger is or what the situation is in their own communities,” she said. “With health information, that usually is a common good issue. So there usually has to be a pretty high bar that you have for withholding (that).”
Not all commanders have gag orders from the Pentagon when it comes to COVID-19. As American forces dealt with a large outbreak at bases in Okinawa in July they regularly provided updates to both local and international media. And American forces in Korea under Gen. Robert Abrams have provided regular updates on numbers throughout the pandemic.
“Gen. Abrams has insisted since day 1 that we need to remain open and transparent with our host nation on our COVID-19 posture,” U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Col. Lee Peters said in an email. “We’ve kept the commander’s directive in place to provide timely information across multiple platforms to both our internal and external audiences including the USFK website, official social media accounts, press releases, media engagements.”
The U.S. military footprint in Korea is currently about 28,500 troops with an additional 30,000 military family members, contractors and other personnel. Forces in Korea have maintained an infection rate of less than 1%, currently at a total of 157 since the first known case in the formation in April.
On Guam, military commanders are still subject to Pentagon restrictions about reporting COVID-19 directly to the public, Ready said.
But the local government has been reporting military coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic, when a massive outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt made international headlines. During the crisis the Navy released the ship’s infection rates to the media — ultimately, 1,156 crew members tested positive and one died.
“The governor has made it very clear that she wants to differentiate between our local spread and our military spread,” says Krystal Paco, spokeswoman for Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero. She said that reporting the numbers is particularly important because military service members continue to move to and from Guam during the pandemic.
Paco said she’s not aware of any pressure from the military for local officials to keep its infection rates secret in Guam. The Pentagon did not answer questions about why it has demanded secrecy from officials in Hawaii but not Guam.
“Although we work closely with our military partners it was important for our numbers to be differentiated,” Paco said. “The military has their own protocol for restriction of movement to continue essential operations. And we also want to closely monitor the local community spread and track our progress.”
Guam doesn’t count the cases from the Roosevelt — which has since left Guam — as part of its military coronavirus total. But Guam officials have publicly tallied more than 70 military-related cases, including 35 airmen who went to local restaurants and raised concerns about community spread.
Guam is now on lockdown following an uptick in cases, with both its governor and lieutenant governor testing positive. Cases are rising in the Naval Hospital, but many of those are National Guardsmen, military dependents and retirees, Paco said. She said Guerrero and military leaders stay in close communication.
Ready said an agreement between the U.S. and the other countries is partly why commanders and officials feel free to publicly discuss case numbers, but commanders in Hawaii still aren’t permitted to give regular reports to communities here.
Shanks Kaurin isn’t convinced. “Maybe there are good reasons why they can report the numbers in Korea and Japan, but there’s no compelling reason that’s been given,” she said. “I think it’s harder to make the argument ‘well that’s okay, because that’s overseas,’ and somehow the American public isn’t entitled to know the numbers in their own community, so it’s really sort of bizarre.”
The data from Davidson’s memo suggests Hawaii bases — at 7% — are doing much better than many bases on the mainland and around the world. At Fort Benning in June, Georgia troops experienced an outbreak of at least 142 soldiers during a single exercise, but leadership there continued with the scheduled training anyway. The surrounding community has since reported high infection rates.
By July the Pentagon reported COVID-19 infection rates across the force that were rising at twice the national civilian rate. In August, new mitigation measures seem as if they may have somewhat curbed the spread among the ranks militarywide.
But locally, Hawaii residents are still left in the dark.
Davidson’s memo also told commanders that INDOPACOM had asked state officials to roll back a controversial quarantine exemption for military family members flying into the state “to align with our measures already in place.”
One day after Davidson sent the memo, Gov. David Ige and Hawaii National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara announced they had rescinded the exemption.
Hara initially issued the exemption at the request of local Coast Guard commanders who were having trouble accommodating incoming families with their limited facilities.
The Coast Guard’s presence is smaller and more spread out across the islands compared to other military branches. Coast Guard commanders gave families modified quarantine orders allowing them to get groceries and medicine upon arriving — under the expectation that they wore masks, distanced and returned to lodgings immediately.
But some Army and Navy officials told Civil Beat in June that they were surprised by their inclusion in the exemption, and they had neither asked for nor wanted an exemption. Commanders ordered families to continue quarantining. Both local commanders and elected officials expressed concern that the exemption created the impression of special treatment.
“This is one of the problems with civ-mil issues, that you have kind of a national discussion, but it’s ultimately about, you know, local relationships,” said Shanks Kaurin. “It’s about individual citizens like me and whether I know people who are in the military, what my interactions in the local community are, because that’s going to frame how I think about the military.”
Civil Beat reporter Anita Hofschneider contributed to this article.
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