Nov 24, 2020
Pentagon Officials COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript November 24
Pentagon officials held a press conference on COVID-19 on November 24. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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All right. Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here for this briefing on COVID-19. With me today are Ken Rapuano, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security. Tom Muir the Director of Washington Headquarters Service and Dr. Lee Payne of the Defense Health Agency. Mr. Rapuano, Mr. Muir and Dr. Payne will be giving brief updates and answer your questions here in just a minute. As you’re all aware, across the country and here in the national capital region, we’ve seen a general uptake in COVID-19 positive cases. As we head into the holiday season, we wanted to take this opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of taking preventative measures to mitigate against the spread of coronavirus. Particularly following CDC guidelines, including wearing a mask, social distancing, hand-washing, staying home when feeling sick and other efforts.
From the start, the department has led on COVID-19 mitigation and response, and we are determined to do so in the coming weeks. As announced on Thursday at the Pentagon reservation, we’ll transition to Health Condition Bravo-Plus, Tom will talk a little bit more about that in a second. We have seen DOD facilities around the country adjusting their health condition levels in the last few weeks, depending on local conditions. Just last week, the acting secretary was in Norfolk when the facility increased their condition level to Charlie, and we would expect to see other increases in the coming weeks. These changes are based on authorities delegated in March, giving commanders the flexibility to respond in the best interest of their personnel while maintaining mission effectiveness. We will, of course, keep everyone posted on additional force condition level changes.
As you’re aware, and as many of us has heard a couple hours ago in the press conference by Operation Warp Speed, we’ve seen tremendous progress on what is now the third vaccine candidate that is shown to have strong efficacy rates against COVID-19. And we’re all tracking the medical experts at this FDA will consider emergency use authorization of vaccines in the near future. Thanks to the vital efforts by the administration’s Operation Warp Speed, under General Perna and our partners in the private sector, we are now a significant step closer to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the coming weeks, Americans will begin to see vaccine distribution [inaudible 00:00:02:17]. The department continues to support this whole government response and is immensely proud of the work that has gone into Warp Speed up until now. We have a long way to go, but the department is prepared to assist in any way necessary. At this point, I’m going to turn over to Mr. Rapuano for some opening comments.
Ken Rapuano: (02:32)
Thanks, John. The Department of Defense has three main objectives for COVID-19 response. The first is protection of the DOD workforce and their families. The second is safeguarding the department’s mission capabilities and readiness. And the third is the support to the whole of government and international responses for COVID-19. DOD’s primary support to U.S. government response has been providing military medical personnel to augment civilian medical facilities in areas experiencing high COVID hospitalization rates. Today, there are over 20,000 national guardsmen deployed in 52 States and territories providing COVID support. DOD has military medical personnel on prepare to deploy orders available to support state and local requests for assistance that come through FEMA and HHS within as early as 48 hours upon request. Our current support includes 62 medical personnel, that’s three medical support teams to support three hospitals in El Paso, Texas. 60 nurses, and additional personnel to support local hospitals and long term care facilities in North Dakota.
Ken Rapuano: (03:47)
And in Guam, we have 18 medical professionals for 24/7 telemedicine support for the civilian hospital on the Island. We also have a small critical care physician team being sent to a local hospital in Guam. We’ve had significant transfer of personal protection equipment since the spring of 2020, DOD transferred twenty million N95 masks approximately over seven million COVID test swabs and almost a thousand ventilators to federal departments at agencies for COVID support. On the research and development front, the department has spent almost 1.5 billion for COVID-19 research and development in FY20. So it really is a whole of government response, and it’s a whole of DOD response in terms of being ready to support other federal departments and agencies in their support to civil authorities around the country as we see cases come up. All right [crosstalk 00:04:48].
Tom Muir: (04:54)
Thank you, John. [inaudible 00:04:55] Tom Muir, Director of Washington Headquarters Services. A follow along with what Ken just mentioned, where workplace safety for our people and their families is the number one priority. We’ve adjusted the Force Health Protection Condition of HPCON here in the Pentagon. And we moved from Bravo to Bravo-Plus, which essentially tightened some restrictions. We were publishing that guidance is already out on www.whs.mil, as well as defense.gov websites for the latest guidance. We also are updating our employee handbooks, which are available on all of our Pentagon entrances. Let me kind of recap the changes that we’ve made to our Health Protection Condition guidance here in the Pentagon. Once again, we believe that these measures are an abundance of caution and prudent when you look at the actions taken by the governor of Maryland, Virginia, and the Mayor of DC over the last several days to mitigate the spread of COVID in our communities. Our measures are in strict alignment with guidance from Center for Disease Control.
Tom Muir: (05:52)
Under Bravo-Plus, we are not reverting, we’re not changing our phased opening status, we still remain at phase two of our Pentagon Plan for resilience. So we’re not closing more portions of the Pentagon. We are, however, particularly due to the holiday season, adjusting our workforce in the building, moving from a goal of 80% of the building 20% tele-work, moving to a goal now of 40% of the building 60% tele-work. And we’ve been achieving about a 50/50 mix, really since about the last several months with about 50% of the workforce in the building. Of course, this aligns with a holiday period where a lot of our workforce are taking advantages of time with family and friends in terms of leave. But they’re also taking advantage of the ability to continue the mission through a distributed and virtual workforce environment. We’re also going to maximize, as we mentioned, telework, not just for our normal employees, but of course continue to ensure that those that are vulnerable to the most serious consequences from COVID remain at home and do not come into the office.
Tom Muir: (06:52)
We’re also, of course, mandating cloth face coverings remain a requirement on Pentagon reservation if you cannot maintain social distance. We’re going to increase the random frequency of our checks at the main entrances to the Pentagon. We currently are doing about 5%. We’re going to move that to about 10 to 15%. Once again, these are checks for health and readiness or health and wellness rather of individuals coming through the Pentagon if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, if some of their family has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or how they feel this morning, do they feel ill, sick fever. And then a cross check of temperatures. And then of course, if they are found to have been exposed in or have a temperature, we’ll refer to their supervisor and then refer them to proper medical authorities so they can receive the medical care that they need.
Tom Muir: (07:33)
Gathering on the Pentagon reservation will be reduced from 50 as our maximum down to 25. Once again, in order to help us maintain social distance through the holidays. We of course continue to have increased parking available in the Pentagon itself because many of our mass transit partners are not necessarily at full operating capacity right now. So many of our employees are choosing to drive to the Pentagon in single occupancy vehicles. The food court will move to take out only, we’ll restrict [inaudible 00:07:59] to food courts. Some of our vendors, of course, will scale down some of their hours, but we anticipate their continued support as we go through the holiday season to HPCON Bravo-Plus. And I’ll turn it over now to Dr. Lee Payne and I’ll take questions later. Thank you.
Dr. Lee Payne: (08:14)
Well, good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us here today, both in the room and those on the phone. I’m the lead for the COVID-19 Task Force Diagnostic and Testing Line of Effort. I’d like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on some key issues concerning COVID-19 testing within the department. In partnership with the services and the combatant commands, the defense health agency and the joint staff as the lead for diagnostics and testing, my mission is to standardize and synchronize COVID-19 testing across the department, in order to mitigate risk to the force in alignment with the department’s priorities. We’re also tasked to determine the best location for equipment, material, and supplies necessary to perform COVID-19 testing and direct their transfer movement or delivery as necessary based on the service validated operational requirements.
Dr. Lee Payne: (09:06)
Since I last provided the update on this topic in July, we’ve continued to execute tests above the department’s original estimates of 50 to 60,000 tests per week. We are now conducting over 70,000 tests each weeks and have been for the past five weeks. These numbers are inclusive of active duty service members and select reserve and guard units such as deploying reserve component units. We also continue to perform diagnostic and screening testing on family members and retiree beneficiaries. And to date we’ve conducted over 1.7 million tests since January. Now, the ability to perform over 70,000 tests in a week is not a singular effort by the department. We could not perform at this level without the help of our interdepartment interagency and industry partners to procure supplies and integrate and implement emerging technologies. Department testing capacity has continued to expand greatly since the July update. At that time, there were 125 department labs certified for COVID-19 testing around the globe with the capability to conduct about over 200,000 tests. As of last week, we have 158 operational laboratories with the overall capacity to conduct nearly 300,000 tests per week.
Dr. Lee Payne: (10:23)
Though, the department faces supply challenges that are in line with the rest of the country. We’ve continued to find creative and agile solutions to mitigate any shortfalls. These solution include the use of pool testing, leveraging existing partnerships with commercial laboratories and implementing new testing technologies. And despite these intermittent supply shortages, the department is regularly able to complete over 99 percent of the required tests each week. Since April, when we started the landscape as a COVID test force line of effort, the landscape for the COVID-19 testing has continually evolved and our strategy has as well. Originally, the department’s strategy was heavily reliant on molecular COVID-19 tests for the detection of SARS-CoV-2. As those tests are the gold standard for detection, they often become a supply constraint during demand spikes.
Dr. Lee Payne: (11:17)
To mitigate this, we’ve worked to expand our testing toolkit to include new technology, such as point of care molecular tests, oral swab, and antigen tests. And additionally we’ve leveraged CDC and FDA guidance to develop protocols that help frontline clinicians determine the right test for the right situation, depending on the patient’s unique circumstances. We’ve also taken key steps to identify critical points in this testing supply chain and appropriate actions to mitigate those shortages throughout each phase of the pandemic. We will continue to lead from the front identifying and investing in new technologies that will allow the department to accomplish our mission and protect our force and families. The department continues to emphasize foundational public health measures that remain essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Lee Payne: (12:06)
Like much rest of the nation, we are seeing increased positive rates across our system as we work to identify those that may have the disease and are at risk for transmitting it to others. I’m proud of the work completed to date, but we know there is much yet to be done. The combined efforts of the department’s testing strategy and enforcement of required public health mitigation measures has enabled the department to effectively manage the challenges of COVID-19 while most importantly, continuing to meet our operational requirements. We look forward to continuing to expand our partnerships capitalize on and implement new emerging research technologies and capabilities that will allow us to grow our testing ability and further reduce the spread of COVID-19, ensuring mission readiness and keeping our service members and their families safe. I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving week. And as a physician, I offer my thanks, my respect and admiration to those colleagues on the front lines, caring for patients…
Dr. Lee Payne: (13:03)
To those colleagues on the front lines, caring for patients across the military health system and the nation this week. I look forward to answering your questions.
Okay. With that we will open it up to questions. I’ll go first to the phones for AP. Is Bob on the line?
Yes, I am. Yes, I am. Thank you, Jonathan. Can I ask Jonathan a couple of quick questions? First, you mentioned Operation Warp Speed, can you tell me what is the military’s role, if it does have one, with regard to providing security, either physical security or cyber security for the vaccine production and distribution? And my second question is about whether you can bring us up to date on the transition interactions that have taken place so far between DOD and the Biden camp?
Okay. I’ll take the first one and then I’ll have Tom talk on the second one because in addition to being responsible for the Pentagon reservation here, he’s also the Director of the Transition Task Force. On the first question, Warp Speed brief earlier today, General Perna gave a pretty lengthy description of what’s taking place. I’m not going to get into the security protocols that they have put in place. That would not be appropriate of me. It’s going to be a combination of a number of different teams. It is something that they are taking into consideration that these are valuable vaccines, and we need to ensure that they get to those who are most in need of them first, and so there are security provisions in place. But I would refer you over to Warp Speed for that. I don’t want to speak on behalf of them and what of all measures they may be taking in addition to DOD support. So I’ll turn it over to Tom to talk on the transition.
Tom Muir: (14:52)
Thank you, Jonathan. As Jonathan mentioned I’m the head of the Department of Defense of Transition Task Force, and as such, I am accountable to carry out the requirements of the statute of the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 as updated eight times since then. And we have a DOD policy that guides our actions during transition activities. And of course, we’ve got governance boards that meet with the deputy secretary and key leaders here in the department that’s provided monthly status updates on this process since early June. Last evening, we did receive a notice last evening from the GSA Administrator in response to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, that made certain post-election resources available to the Biden Harris Transition Team.
Tom Muir: (15:32)
The head of the Biden Harris Transition Team did reach out to me personally last night. We had a conversation via email and we had our first meeting this morning, between the Department of Defense and the Biden Harris Transition Team, what they call the Agency Review Team or the ART, the A-R-T. You’ll hear that referred to often. This is a line both once again with the Presidential Transition Act, the White House and Biden Harris memorandum of understanding, between those two organizations and DOD policy. We are aligned with our statutory requirements. We are executing our responsibilities under the Presidential Transition Act and our DOD policy. We’re looking forward to continuing the process with the Biden Harris Transition Team in the near future and throughout the transition period.
All right, Bob. We’ll go next, is Phil, are you on the line? We’ll come back in here, in the room.
Speaker 1: (16:27)
I had a question for Ken regarding the deployment in North Dakota. I think you said it was to seek long care term assistance. What impact has the COVID spike in North Dakota, particularly around Minot, had on defensive positions, the NORAD sites and other defensive activities that are part of the Department of Defense. Has that influenced the deployment? Did you guys initiate the deployment or was that request of FEMA, HHS, please? Thank you.
Ken Rapuano: (16:59)
So this came through the ESFA, the Emergency Support Function Council of FEMA, HHS, and DOD participates in that group as well. Ultimately, the group considers the prioritization, considers the actual need or degree of need by their requesting state or locality, and then they make a recommendation. FEMA provided us with a confirmed request for assistance for that support. So that support was not predicated on a DOD personnel at any of the facilities in the region.
Speaker 1: (17:31)
Does it have impact at all to COVID in North Dakota on to DOD facilities, in this State?
Ken Rapuano: (17:35)
So I don’t have a base by base takeoff, but we do see a relationship between the caseload in localities, in the vicinity of DOD facilities. But of course our demographics are different than the general public, so we haven’t experienced the yet of hospitalizations that we’ve seen.
Speaker 1: (17:52)
Sorry. You did say long-term care assistance, correct? In North Dakota?
Ken Rapuano: (17:57)
Yes, to long-term care facilities.
Speaker 1: (17:59)
Ken Rapuano: (17:59)
Speaker 1: (17:59)
Okay. All right.
Speaker 2: (18:02)
Can you explain why there seem to be so fewer deployments now with military medical teams than there were last spring when the first spike occurred and now we’re in a much bigger wave, but the deployments seem to be a lot less. Why is that?
Ken Rapuano: (18:21)
So the real reason is number one, the diluted case dispersion around the country. You’re not seeing that heavy, heavy load that we saw in the Northeast, Northern New Jersey and New York City where it overwhelmed the medical support systems in place. They have essentially developed enhanced treatment capabilities that reduce the amount of time spent hospitalized for individuals. So across the board, there are a number of improvements based on experience dealing with the cases. Also based on the dilution of the cases per geographic, where we’re not seeing the degree. El Paso, we’ve seen significant case loads where in some cases, the hospitals were becoming quite full in terms of their bed space, and that’s where we focused our support.
Ken Rapuano: (19:10)
But as you note, it’s significantly less to date that could change, when and if that changes, we want to make sure that we have sufficient capabilities to address those circumstances that are the most needing.
Speaker 2: (19:23)
How many personnel do you have on these, prepare to deploy order?
Ken Rapuano: (19:28)
So we have hundreds now and we can increase as needed.
Okay, we’ll go back to the phones. We’ll go to Carla Babb.
Carla Babb: (19:39)
Hey Jonathan. Thank you so much for doing this. This question is for you, since it’s the first opportunity to ask a question to you or the secretary, since the announcement about drawing down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan further. I was wondering since violence in Afghanistan is up 50% from the last quarter to this quarter, that’s according to [CEGAR 00:19:59] and commanders have repeatedly told VOA and others that the Taliban hasn’t shown conclusively that they’re going to break with Al-Qaida. What are the conditions that are driving this decision that on the ground?
Carla Babb: (20:12)
And then also, secondly, when the announcement was made a senior defense official had told reporters on that ground, that the cuts were going to result no elimination of capabilities on the ground, but several US military officials have told VOA that a significant reduction of forces like this would lead to at least some reduction of the scope of the missions, if all the missions indeed were going to continue and in Afghanistan. So can you help square how we’re going to lose nearly half of the troops in Afghanistan and nearly 20% of the troops in Iraq, and none of the capabilities are going to be lost?
So ultimately the Department of Defense has implemented the Commander in Chief’s decision with regard to these engagements. And so, as we saw the president had received advice from his National Security team, he received advice from his military commanders, and then he made a decision on what the force levels would be within Afghanistan and Iraq. I was not part of the briefings with the president, so I can’t share the conversations that took part in those conversations. But the overarching conditions, and these were discussed last week and I know all of you are aware of it is what a reduction in forces result in a National Security threat to the American Homeland, our people and our interests, and would our forces still be able to continue the operations necessary to maintain a posture capable of mitigating any such future threat that may emerge.
And the decisions with those was that, the reduction was not going to put our National Security at risk. And that with the force level, that the president has directed, that we would be able to maintain the ability to respond in the future. So, that was the calculus. That’s my understanding that was based on the president’s decision that he gave. I can’t speak to your second question is to what some of your sources may have said. I can be happy to put you in touch with the CENTCOM and resolute support leadership to get their actual take on it. But I can’t speak to the unnamed sources you’ve mentioned there. All right. Well, go off to the phone, Tony Capaccio.
Tony Capaccio: (22:22)
Hi, sir. I have a couple of questions. One, was the move to Bravo Plus at all precipitated by an increase in the positivity rates of COVID testing of personnel in the Pentagon Reservation? And I have a second question.
I’ll just take a first crack at that and then turn it over to Tom. The decision to go to Bravo Plus was made a few days ago, I think late last week. I know there was some speculation and questions were posited to us to about the visit of the Latvian Defense Minister… Sorry, Lithuanian Defense Minister, and whether that had any impact. The decision to increase, as Tom mentioned before, is a reflection of the local community. All of our bases are part of local communities. And so when we look at what the force protection level is, it is a reflection of what is happening, not only within our facilities, but outside of those gates.
And as Tom has mentioned, our personnel more so at our bases in the field than in the Pentagon are much younger, healthier dynamic than the surrounding populations. And so, we have a little bit of a different calculus, but that is what we look at. We look at what’s going on outside the gates, and we’ve seen both the governors of Virginia and governor of Maryland, and the mayor of the District of Columbia all increase their measures to counter COVID. And so, we respond to that as well. I don’t… Tom, if there’s anything else?
Tom Muir: (23:48)
I would just say that align with our local communities know we are a product of our community that we live in. Although the Pentagon has significantly lower COVID spread than any other building that I’m aware of the DC metropolitan region, because we have a well-informed, well-educated, deliberate workforce that takes care of themselves and their families, wears protective masks, washes their hands and maintain social distance whenever possible to do their mission. We are seeing of course, much like the rest of the nation, the impacts of social gatherings, particularly when we let our guard down and do not use social distancing or masks to protect ourselves and our families. So we did see a positive bump around the community here in the DC, Maryland, Virginia areas due to social gatherings, bars, restaurants, etc., which of course the governors and the mayors have commented on. We saw the same here in the Pentagon workforce.
I have a question about the transition so stay.
Tom Muir: (24:38)
Sure. I’ll just stay then.
I wanted to have a little bit more details on how it works, because I don’t know how it works.
Tom Muir: (24:51)
So is it daily meetings that you are going to have with the transition team. Are you going to give them some intelligence about what’s going on? How is it going to work?
Tom Muir: (25:06)
Sure. Once again, our reference on this as the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, this has been updated eight times in statute since. That’s kind of our baseline. And from there, GSA in partnership with the White House has developed a very rigorous and well-defined best practices playbook. In fact, it’s actually published. There’s a playbook for a presidential transition. It’s actually published by our friends in the partnership for public service and other nonprofit agencies that kind of capture these best practices over success of presidential transitions throughout the years. Part of our responsibilities under the act is to be prepared to receive the agency review teams and then provide them updates on the Department of Defense activities in preparation for a presidential transition. That process actually began many months ago, where we had to deliberately, by statute once again, provide what we call a Plum Book, which is a listing of all non-career political appointee positions in the department. A succession plan that says-
Tom Muir: (26:03)
Career political appointee positions in the department, a succession plan that says if there’s a vacancy of the department, that there is reliable continuity of leadership within the Department of Defense for each of our mission areas and for each of our organizations. And finally, we had to provide what we call interim transition books, which essentially are a primmer, if you will, of organizational structures, budget, mission, charters, all the details that go into running the organization, which includes the military departments, the joint staff, National Guard Bureau, and of course our Office of Secretary of Defense components.
Tom Muir: (26:35)
So a very detailed elaborate deliberate system. It begins with engagement follow ascertainment by the GSA administrator, which was effective last evening. Therefore, we’ve had two discussions now with the agency review team. Those will be daily discussions moving forward likely, and we’ll be responsive to the requirements while ensuring that we implement the national defense strategy United States during this time of vulnerability for our nation.
All right, we’ll keep going on the phone. Aaron, Defense News.
Carla Babb: (27:07)
Thanks, Jonathan. Two questions. First, I’d like to get an answer to Tony’s question about when the secretary, as well as the other service secretaries who had interactions with the Lithuanian minister were last tested and if they tested negative. And then more broadly, just what’s the plan for exactly where service members and families fall in the priority list for receiving the vaccine going forward?
Sorry, I apologize, Tony. I forgot to respond to your question. I must’ve blocked out there for a minute. As of the statement we provided last week when we were first made aware of the Lithuanian minister, that we conducted testing of the senior leaders that had contact with the minister and then people with our practice. I’ll let you know if there’s a positive test. I’ll tell you that at this time we conducted testing and the only positive test that came out of the testing with regard to meetings with the Lithuanian minister was the previously reported test, a positive test of Tony Taita.
So the second question was with the guidance. So with vaccines, this was kind of discussed a little bit on the warp speed call this morning with a Secretary Azar and others. Within the Department of Defense, we historically follow the advisory committee on immunization practices, CDC and FDA guidance. And so they’re meeting, they’re having conversations about what the final guidance would be. I can give you generally what the initial guidance for CDC vaccinations is, and that was going to be, and this is from that organization that we would be likely following was healthcare personnel, non-healthcare essential workers, adults with high risk of medical conditions and people 65 years of age or older living in long-term care facilities.
You’ll see from that list that the department may not have a huge number of individuals that fall into those initial categories. Most of our personnel, particularly uniform personnel, are much younger, under the age of 30. They’re fit, not a lot of secondary high risk medical conditions. And so we’ll be looking over that in the coming weeks as the plan is put together. We’ve been in contact with CDC in putting our plan in place and reviewing it. I know that there’ve been meetings undergoing at the department that the deputy secretary of defense is leading this review as we establish this plan under the direction of the defense health agency.
And as soon as we are at a place where we’re prepared with the approval of a CDC and FDA to release that information, we’ll be doing so. And so that’s a briefing we plan to provide in the coming weeks.
Speaker 3: (29:59)
Your medical personnel would get the vaccinations along with their compadres in the civilian world?
Just from the guidance, I can’t speak to our internal guidance because it’s not finalized, and I haven’t reviewed it specifically, but I’ll give you the guidance that is provided from CDC and from the advisory committee on immunization practices, which the initial guidance they gave was to in part prioritize healthcare professionals. Barbara.
Could I take you back to the issue of the transition planning you’re doing, and the way ahead, because my question is sort of the same as Sylvie’s? For those of us who aren’t terribly familiar with the regulations and the policies, I think what we’re maybe looking for is some very practical ways to explain it. So when you say, for example, when you say daily meetings, because there’s so much teleworking, can you tell us, will the transition team have full office space? Will they be limited on how many people they bring in? Do you think your meetings and was your meeting virtual?
Will many of them be virtual? Kind of looking for a lay of the land and more specifically, I didn’t hear you mention that … You’d mentioned the kinds of things they would be briefed on as part of the regular way of doing this. Does that include, do they get military intelligence briefings? Do they have access to military personnel? And what level, perhaps the big question, are you the decision maker? Do you get to decide what is done or do you have to run everything through Chief of Staff Patel for his permission and the secretary’s permission?
So we’ll let Tom take the first seven of those. I’ll take the last one, but I don’t want to devolve this in briefing into just a transition briefing because we do want to hit the COVID related issues that are facing us as we approach Thanksgiving …
With all due respect, I was raising my hand consistently. So I would think Mr. Muir probably doesn’t mind answering.
And I said, I’ll be happy to take the first. Tom will be happy to take the first seven of those. So, Tom.
Tom Muir: (32:14)
So, I’m going to begin with the meetings. The agency review team obviously reached out last evening. We had our first discussions and exchanged electronic emails. First meeting today was by video teleconference, virtual, good productive meeting as we kind of laid out sort of the ground rules. I can tell you that the team is willing and certainly able to abide by the COVID restrictions here in the Pentagon. They agree with the protection measures that we’re doing for our families, our employees, ourselves, our colleagues, our comrades here in the Pentagon.
Tom Muir: (32:43)
They’re looking forward to participating in discussions in the Pentagon. In fact, I’m providing a small tour on Monday next week for some of the agency review team leaders here in the Pentagon, there is dedicated office space for them in the Pentagon and the reservation here in the building, actually, that we provided for them. It allows for social distancing for six feet between workspaces to include video teleconference capacities that the unclassified side and at the classified side. As you discussed, there’ll be many that want updated intelligence briefings and updated briefings on operational plans.
Tom Muir: (33:18)
Many of those once again by statute. One of the many changes over the last 50 years, 57 years of the President’s Transition Act is to allow the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to initiate background investigations and security clearances on many of the agency review team leaders. So many will come here with top secret clearances investigated and adjudicated by the Department of Justice, reciprocated by the Department of Defense, which will allow them access to intelligence. Now they’ll have access at the appropriate levels with signed nondisclosure agreements as once again, the materials that they’re going to review, once again, particularly they’re classified, many are not for public distribution or release, there’ll be privy to, and we’ll respond to their queries, their questions, their requests for deeper dive, briefing materials, products releases.
Tom Muir: (34:05)
In terms of the decision processes, we work in support of the secretary of defense for this operation. It is part of our alignment for professional, efficient, effective, and transparent, where the agency review team process and we’re committed to doing that while executing a national defense strategy. So we have prepared for this for quite some time. For six months, we are prepared to receive the agency review team. I believe that some will work in the building. I think some will do virtual. Some of the members are not in the DC area.
Tom Muir: (34:32)
We think we’ll be communicating with them via video teleconferences, either at the secure side or the unclassified side, if that’s the dialogue that they want to get into. And we’re committed to both supporting our statutory requirements and to continuing our mission here in the department.
All right. We’ll go to Scott from Fed News Network.
Are you not going to answer my question?
I thought he handled the …
My outstanding question is what is the level of approval for Mr. Muir and what does everything have to get the Chief of Staff Patel’s approval, the secretary’s approval? At what level to decisions to share information or work with the transition team have to be approved by the chief of staff or the secretary?
I thought Tom’s answered at the end there on saying that the goal here is to be a professional, efficient and transparent and ensure that the team has the information that they need to be successful and ensure that our national security throughout this transition time is ensured. Decisions are going to be made on regard, I think there’s some classification conversations that’ll go into it. And I think a part of it take into account is the secretary is in charge of the transition. I mean, the acting secretary of defense is in charge of this transition.
Tom is going to be the career official handling it. He’s been working very closely with the deputy secretary on this. I think the Tom, you said the deputy secretary has been ensuring that the workspace is correct and that the binders have been reviewed is making sure that that all has been done appropriately. I spoke with the chief of staff today, and he has assured me that Tom Muir is the lead on this and that he’s going to be working with Tom and Tom is going to be the one working with the team today. The chief of staff reached out to the agency review team lead today as well to provide his contact information, let her know that if they, if she needs anything, that she is welcome to reach out to him.
His goal is to be the touch point for the secretary and ensure the secretary has insight into what’s going on and to make sure that the transition is successful. Okay.
Tom Muir: (36:37)
If I could just add in two quick thoughts of context, one is that we’ve been running a governance process and supported this aligned with our policy for quite some time, as I mentioned. There’s a senior steering group that meets monthly. In fact, we’re probably going to increase that now there’s been an ascertainment led by the deputy secretary and the vice chairman. So senior leadership of the department participates. I provide them updates every month about our current status of preparation, our plans, next steps and the next meeting structures. We’re also meeting with what we call the transition assistance coordinators. These are designated senior official, general officers and career senior executives in each of our cabinet agencies, each of our military departments, joint staff, National Guard Bureau, our Office of Secretary Defense components. We meet weekly, just met Monday, and we discuss and to include, I’m sorry, the combat and commands as well, have a representative on this transition assistance coordinator process. We meet with them weekly, and we update them as to the status of both our plans, activities, next steps.
Tom Muir: (37:34)
There’s where we’re going to have the real discussion on deliverables, materials, next set up meetings, scheduling senior leaders for interviews with the agency review team. We’ll work these through our partners. So it’s a collaborative governance structure underneath our policy structure.
All right. Let’s get back to the phones, Scott from a Fed News Network.
Yeah, good afternoon. So, the past few days, past week or so, we’ve seen really some of the largest numbers in spikes for service members being diagnosed with COVID-19. I’m curious, I realized that this is up to local commanders, but do you expect, I think you have about 60% that are open or don’t have restrictions right now. Do you expect that number to go down as these cases continue to rise? And is the Defense Department, as a whole, considering any other sort of policies that might go into effect now that you have nearly 75,000 service members who have been diagnosed to date?
Scott, with the 60% number, what exactly are you referencing with that?
That would be the number of bases, military installations that have eased their restrictions and gone green.
I’m not sure that that number is exactly right and if it was correct at some point in the recent past, I would expect that that number, you’re going to see an increase of facilities going to Charlie. I think the Navy across the board has increased their level to Charlie. We’ve seen facilities. I think I mentioned-
… we’ve seen facilities at the… I mentioned Norfolk in the last week, facilities in the Northeast. So I think you’ll continue to see that. Once again, that’s going to be decisions based on local communities and the operational needs of the services, and the bases. I think, yes, we will see those closures go up. Back to the question on, “Generally, will there be any additional DOD measures put in place?” We feel comfortable with the levels that we’ve put in place in the past, and that we have weathered this relatively well based on the guidance that was provided back in February of this year. As Ken pointed out, the number one priorities of the department were to protect our people and ensure we continue to do our missions.
And so, those guidance that has been pushed out by Former Secretary Esper, and a continuation through the Acting Secretary Miller has allowed the commanders to make decisions they need to protect their forces. So I don’t see any blanket changes in policy that are being considered. I think we’ll continue to watch and let commanders make the decisions on the ground. And then we’ll do things like we’re doing here today, is to reiterate to our forces and to double down and let them know that, take these measures seriously. There’s nothing wrong with commanders and everyone stepping up to restate the need to wear masks, to do social distancing, to wash hands, and to follow through with those mitigation measures.
And then, at the second part, we’re going to look to support the Operation Warp Speed and vaccination efforts, and hope to reach a point in the near future where vaccinations are out the door and people are being treated, and we start to see a different curve with respect to COVID. All right, we’ll go to Nick from PBS. All right. Not hearing Nick. We’ll go to Jeff from Task & Purpose.
Carla Babb: (41:09)
Thank you. Two quick questions. Will families and service members be required to get a COVID vaccine and has Defense Secretary Miller responded to Bill Belichick’s request that the US confront Turkey and Azerbaijan over the war with Armenia?
Well, fortunately I will say that there is a peace agreement in place right now between Azerbaijan and Armenia that appears to be holding at the current point. So we may be able to forestall having a summit between the acting secretary and coach Belichick to discuss that. And then with regard to your first question, which I forgot already. Please remind me, Jeff.
Carla Babb: (41:58)
Sure. Will troops and families be required to get a COVID vaccine? Will it be mandatory?
I don’t have information for you to share on that right now. I’m going to defer answering that question to when we give the vaccination update in the coming weeks. And we’ll have a fuller conversation about what will and will not be required. But at this time, Jeff, I’m not going to going to be able to share that. All right, we’ve got a couple more. Megan.
Jeff took my question.
Okay. The Belichick question?
Yes. That’s what I’ve been holding on for the whole week. [Crosstalk 00:42:32] I do have a question. This was a little bit murky in your response to Tony and Erin. But when was Acting Secretary Miller’s last negative COVID test?
So we’ve moved kind of set the standard before that we’re not going to get into every single negative test that a senior leader does. I can just say that in the time the secretary has been here, whether it’s between testing prior to travel, testing as a result of the close contact that was reported, testing due to a White House meeting, he’s been tested more than a half dozen times in the two weeks that he’s been the secretary of defense. And I have no positive test results to report. All right, we’ll go to the phones for the last one. Courtney [inaudible 00:43:14]
My question was asked as well. Thanks.
All right. You have a follow up or anything? All right.
I would like to ask the doctor something. So for people who work in this building, in the Pentagon, the issue of contact tracing is confusing to me, including reporters who work here. And I was wondering if you, or whoever the appropriate person is, I apologize if I’m asking [crosstalk 00:04:49]. Well, my question is really this. So somebody is tested and they come back positive and you might say to them, so who have you been in contact with in the building in terms of contact tracing inside the Pentagon? Well, most reporters never hear any cases of positive because we’re not told of positive cases in this building. How can you advise the news media to ensure that they have full awareness of who may be tested, who may be positive so we’re not inadvertently being unknown spreaders, asymptomatic, anything like that. Nobody’s ever really explained it to us. And this is the opportunity for us to ask. How do we learn more about what’s going on inside the Pentagon?
Tom Muir: (44:44)
Sure. From a Pentagon perspective, we do have a very robust contact tracing program. But you’re right though. It relies upon reporting. Good, accurate reporting that if I am sick and I tell my supervisor that I was tested in my local community, and that I’m positive for COVID, then my supervisor to report that into our operation center here in the Pentagon, which really rolls that up to Joint Staff. From there within 24 hours, our policy right now is to contact the person who is reported to be positive, and then ask them who they’ve been in close, personal contact with, particularly during the time period that they were symptomatic. And you’re right. There are many people that are asymptomatic, they’re tested and they come positive. And so we look for 48 to 72 hours prior to their… And oftentimes there’s a little bit of lag in terms of testing, right?
Tom Muir: (45:30)
You get tested, find the results two or three days later. Hence the CDC guidelines asks for 48 hours before they were symptomatic, shows an opportunity to spread the COVID virus inside the workplace. So then we ask them who has been in close personal contact for more than 15 minutes. Now it’s over a 24 hour period, less than six feet, without a mask on or with a mask on. And we identify those people by name. What helps is when they maintain, or they understand who they’ve been in close, personal contact with. And oftentimes in a building this size with nearly 11,000 in the workplace in most days, it’s hard to remember who you’ve been in close contact with. And so we ask them to give us the names of those they were in close contact with, and then within 48 hours, we’re contacting those personnel and asking them if they’re feeling symptomatic, are they feeling sick?
Tom Muir: (46:20)
Do they have a fever? Anybody in their family feeling sick, has a fever, showing symptoms. Then we ask them to notify their local physician and get tested. Here in the building about a third of our workforce are military, about a third of our workforce are civilian, and about a third of our workforce are contractors. And so it’s kind of a mixed demographic, if you will, for healthcare provision. And so we’re relying a lot on local health care authorities. And then all the numbers that are positive on the Pentagon reservation report up through public health authorities. So Arlington County, Alexandria County, Fairfax County, PG County, Montgomery County. They’re aware of any outbreaks in here. We do not, by policy and by process, notify folks, hey, there’s somebody in this cubicle that was positive. However, if you’re notified by a contract tracer that says you may have been in contact with a certain person that was in the building next to you, more than 15 minutes in a meeting with you, we’ll advise that person to get tested. Right now, the CDC guidelines does not require testing for asymptomatic, but I’ll ask Dr. Payne to kind of-
Dr. Payne: (47:23)
No. You did a great job. Almost an honorary medical degree there, Tom. But no, we would not necessarily test everybody who has a contact.
So for example Secretary Miller comes in contact with a Lithuanian minister who later tests positive, Secretary Miller tests negative. You have no reason to tell people, including reporters that may have been near Secretary Miller, that they need to be tested.
Dr. Payne: (47:53)
I would say a test is a test only at that point in time. And that’s why we also recommend quarantine or isolation for those contexts because the disease could develop over time.
A nobody ever tells you they were in contact with a reporter.
I think what Barbara is talking about is there’s a chain. I think Tom hit on it there. Is it’s contact. Close contact is the CDC requirement and then there’s contact and then there’s contact with someone who had contact. And so the question you’re asking is why doesn’t somebody tell you if you’ve been in contact with somebody who had a close contact.
Right. I would like to ask that-
And I think that’s not the guidance, that’s not the CDC guidance that the risk in that chain and tell someone is symptomatic or has tested positive that, that chain is not there. And I would just say the other thing is, as Tom mentioned, the process we have in place. I apologize, the bureaucratic process we have in place for notifying. But I think what you’ll see and people see in the building is there’s the just general relationships that people in the building of, if somebody tests positive of reaching out to their coworkers and letting them know, reaching out to people that they had close contact with immediately to let them know.
I’ve seen that in cases recently where an individual may have tested positive and they make it very clear because people want to know quickly. Because the best way to stop the spread is to very quickly notify people. That’s why we say, if you have symptoms, don’t come into work, go see your doctor, your healthcare provider. The sooner the better, so that we can stop the spread. And so we see that a lot happened in the building because we have a responsible workforce that understands the implications of having a number of tests here. So I’m just going to close up with a couple of final remarks and then we’ll let you guys out of this room. So I just want to share you, as I mentioned, we’ll be back with some additional briefings on transition and on vaccinations in the coming weeks as more information becomes available.
And so I’m sure Tom will be with us for that, and we’ll have the appropriate people from DHA to come in and talk about the vaccination plan. So we’ve seen a lot of stories about the fact that with Thanksgiving, people aren’t able to travel, people aren’t able to be with families. And just a note of perspective for viewers and readers and for those who are discouraged by not being able to travel this holiday due to COVID-19. And just ask you to remember that there are millions of military members who over the last two decades have missed many holidays in the service of the country, deployed across the globe in defense of the nation. This is not an ideal situation, but we’re optimistic that with the progress of Warp Speed, the light is at the end of the tunnel.
In closing, I want to reiterate why we’re here and that’s to talk to our DOD personnel and our service members at home and abroad and encourage them to follow the CDC COVID-19 mitigation guidelines over these holidays. Take proper precautions with regard to necessary quarantines, wash your hands regularly, maintain social distancing, limit the size of gatherings, wear a mask, and if necessary, choose not to travel. And also please make sure you observe local regulations. Finally, I just want everybody to remember that social distancing and hand-washing are excellent excuses to get out of uncomfortable family conversations about politics at Thanksgiving. So just recommend everybody abuse those excuses often throughout the holiday season. And hope everybody has a good Thanksgiving. Thank you.