Top U.S. General: Proposed COVID-19 Recruiting Ban 'Has Not Been Approved'

May 7, 2020
Originally published on May 8, 2020 6:46 am

Updated at 4:58 p.m. ET

The nation's top military officer says the Pentagon is still weighing its options when it comes to recruitment and COVID-19, several days after an internal memo surfaced publicly that suggested all recovered patients would be ineligible to join the military. That interim guidance was revised Wednesday to suggest that only those who had been hospitalized would be disqualified — but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, told NPR that even the latest version remains just a draft.

"It hasn't been rigorously thought out and reviewed by the service secretaries — the chiefs — or the secretary of defense," Milley said in an interview with Morning Edition recorded Thursday. "We'll have to, with the doctors, take a very, very hard look at the medical standards of recruits and how COVID — or if you've been infected by COVID — how that applies."

"But that has not been approved," he added. "That got out there by accident, as sometimes documents do."

Milley's comments appear to quash many of the questions marks that swirled for days around the U.S. military's recruiting policies in the midst of the global pandemic. The original document that began circulating publicly this week, an internal message issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, or USMEPCOM, advised its readers to label any reported history of COVID-19 as "Considered Disqualifying."

"During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying," officials stated in the earlier version of the document, which the Pentagon has confirmed as authentic.

The memo was then revised on Wednesday, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, to bar only those applicants who were hospitalized with the respiratory disease. Those who have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 but have avoided serious complications would remain eligible, under the revised guidelines, while those who did find themselves in a hospital can satisfy the rule by obtaining a service waiver — similar to the process established for other conditions that could medically disqualify a recruit, such as asthma or a recent case of pneumonia.

But the revised version is not final either, Milley told NPR, adding that he expects the finalized version "in maybe, say, a week or two." He noted that it would not pass his "common sense test" to apply those medical disqualifications to service members who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 either.

U.S. military personnel, seen outside the overflow hospital at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan last month. The Pentagon has issued interim guidance advising caution pursuing recruits who have been hospitalized previously with COVID-19.
Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images

"We're going to have to implement a whole series of protocols," he said, "not something only like that memo, but there's a whole series of adjustments we're going to have to make to this world we're now in."

The Pentagon's decision is unfolding in the shadow of the Trump administration's push to reopen states and lift the sweeping coronavirus restrictions across the country, which has included celebrations of those who have recovered from COVID-19. At the same time, the World Health Organization has warned that there is no reliable evidence yet to know for sure that recovered COVID-19 patients are safe from a second infection.

The questions around the draft recruiting guidance are not the only ones the U.S. military has confronted about its coronavirus response.

Controversy has swirled around the outbreak on a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The U.S. Navy continues to review how and why the vessel's commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, was relieved of his command after his request for help leaked to the media.

Thomas Modly resigned as acting secretary of the Navy last month amid a hailstorm of criticism, just four months after Trump had installed Modly in the role.

NPR's Tom Bowman contributed to this report.

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