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In South Korea, How US General Contained COVID-19


Incoming commander, Gen. Robert Abrams attends during a change-of-command ceremony for the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea at Camp Humphreys.
Incoming commander, Gen. Robert Abrams attends during a change-of-command ceremony for the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea at Camp Humphreys.

“Go hard, go early.”

That’s the advice from Gen. Robert Abrams, the top U.S. general in South Korea, on how to combat the coronavirus.

“It'll seem like an overreaction. It'll seem a bit over the top…a week later, your community will understand, your unit will understand.”

Abrams, who spoke to VOA and CNN in a joint interview Thursday in Seoul, commands approximately 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. It was effectively the first U.S. community to be on the front lines against the coronavirus. Its efforts so far to contain the outbreak provide important insights in the global fight against COVID-19.

Quick action

The most important lesson, according to Abrams, is to act immediately and decisively.

“You've got to attack this hard and fast from the very beginning,” he said, "It's got a very, very high infectious rate."

Nowhere is that more evident than South Korea.

The country reported its first case on January 20. Cases remained relatively low for weeks, until a 61-year-old woman, the country's 31st confirmed case, attended religious services after contracting the virus.

Within a week, South Korea exploded with thousands of cases -- over half of which were linked to the religious group.

“It only takes one person,” Abrams said, citing this case, South Korea's so-called Patient 31 case.

South Korea was able to quickly put out the cluster infection, thanks to its campaign of vigorous coronavirus testing, investigations to determine the path of infection and isolation of those involved.

So far, the U.S. military in South Korea has avoided its own “super spreader.” As of Friday, only 17 individuals related to U.S. Forces Korea, including two armed services members, have tested positive for the virus.

Fighting complacency

With the number of new U.S. military-related infections picking up over the past week, though, Abrams has implemented strict new measures.

At Camp Humphreys, the biggest U.S. base in South Korea, life has changed dramatically. Gyms have been closed. Bus and taxi services are suspended. Lines sometimes form outside the commissary because only 100 people are allowed in the store at a time.

Last week, Abrams declared a public health emergency, which gave him greater authority to enforce restrictions among civilian employees, contractors, and service members’ families. That move came after a U.S. contractor caught the virus after eating at a local restaurant in violation of rules.

“The fight now is really about…complacency and ensuring that every single person remains vigilant,” Abrams said. “And it's difficult in a community, but what people need to understand about this enemy is that it only takes one person to not follow the guidance. That puts everyone else's health at risk. And it will be almost immediate.”

Military readiness

Mission-related activities have also changed. Aircraft mechanics, for instance, have been separated into teams.

“So if a person on one team gets sick, it doesn’t affect all the mechanics,” Abrams said.

The same goes for air crews. Pilots now are paired up, rather than rotated, making it easier to track down infection paths, should the need arise, he said.

The measures could affect military readiness, especially if they last a long time, Abrams acknowledged. He said he is confident, though, of striking a balance between mission readiness and safety.

“We're still flying [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights]. We're still flying helicopters. We're still conducting routine training,” he said. “It's required us to make some adjustments, but we’re all capable of doing it.”

The U.S. military must deal with the coronavirus while also keeping an eye on North Korea. That threat was highlighted last month, when North Korea tested a record number of short-range missiles.

Other challenges

Making things even trickier, the U.S. military this week furloughed over 4,000 local South Korean civilian employees, amid deadlocked military cost-sharing negotiations between Washington and Seoul.

“I’ve been burning up the phone lines and email late at night and early morning back to Washington,” Abrams said of the cost-sharing talks, which are led on the U.S. side by the State Department.

Asked if the military is able to cope with the furloughs on top of the virus containment, all while remaining mission-ready, Abrams replied: “I don't have a choice. I have to deal with it...this is part of our duties and responsibilities.”

Looking ahead

Nearly two months since the outbreak began in South Korea, the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are now learning the same lessons as those in South Korea.

One important final lesson is that even when it seems the virus has been contained, the battle isn’t over.

“I’m not about flattening the curve,” Abrams said. “I’m about squashing the curve.”