Military lift ban on COVID-19 survivors joining, denial still possible

  • The Defense Department has dropped a policy that barred recruits who had contracted COVID-19 from joining up.
  • The Pentagon's under secretary for personnel and readiness said the military was looking at recruits on a case-by-case basis until health professionals come up with recommendations for the department.
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The Pentagon has rescinded a policy released earlier this month that prevented recruits who had contracted COVID-19 from enlisting or earning a military commission, the Defense Department's top manpower official told reporters Thursday.

What started as an all-out ban evolved into barring those who had been hospitalized after contracting the virus. And now it's changed again. Matthew Donovan, defense under secretary for personnel and readiness, said during the press conference that he had canceled that guidance in favor of reverting back to pre-coronavirus accessions standards.

"At the same time, we're having our health professionals and our doctors and researchers take a look at that and come up with any recommendations that they'll provide to me and the [defense] secretary," he said, adding that their final decision is forthcoming.

In the meantime, he said, the policy is to look at each recruit on a case-by-case basis. That means a full work-up by military entrance processing station doctors, with time of diagnosis, complications and recovery taken into account.

If there are any indications that a recruit hasn't fully cleared the virus or is still suffering from complications, they could be prevented from moving on to initial entry training.

Trainees wait to be in-processed at the 120th Adjutant General Battalion at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, October 30, 2019.
Alexandra Shea/Fort Jackson Public Affairs

Donovan added that he had spent part of the morning on a call with Senate Armed Services Committee members concerned about the ban, after multiple lawmakers voiced concerns about the effects it would have on recruiting.

"If an individual can pass the Military Entrance Processing Station screening process — despite a hospitalization for coronavirus — they should be allowed to serve," Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on May 12. "I agree that more research is needed to study the long-term effects of coronavirus on the human body. However, I do not think that the lack of research available warrants permanently disqualifying patriotic Americans from serving in the military."

As public health experts and researchers race to find treatments, develop and vaccine and generally study the latest coronavirus, there is still a dearth of information on its short- and long-term effects.

For the military's purposes, whether it causes irreparable lung damage could figure heavily in terms of combat readiness. And as the services brace for a resurgence in infections, it's still unknown whether COVID-19 antibodies provide immunity to re-infection, or could perhaps make someone more susceptible to a second round of the disease.

"It sort of depends," he said. "Any infectious disease, we want to make sure they're not infectious at the time. There's a lot of unknowns about this virus right now. Are ther are there any long-term, lasting effects? That's what our health care professionals are looking at right now."

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