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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tests positive for coronavirus

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Jan. 2 that he was exhibiting mild symptoms after testing positive for the coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has tested positive for the coronavirus and is exhibiting mild symptoms, he said in a statement Sunday night.

Austin, 68, tested positive on Sunday after feeling symptomatic and requesting the test while on leave, he said. He plans to isolate for five days, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Stemming the spread of this virus, safeguarding our workforce and ensuring my own speedy and safe recovery remain my priorities,” Austin said. “To the degree possible, I plan to attend virtually this coming week those key meetings and discussions required to inform my situational awareness and decision making. I will retain all authorities.”

Austin, a retired Army general, has made combating the virus a significant focus during his first year as defense secretary, increasing emphasis on masks and mandating that service members get vaccinated. Last week, in the face of a surge in coronavirus cases, his staff introduced additional safety precautions at the Pentagon that include eliminating seating in the building’s food court, as the Defense Department had at the outset of the pandemic.

Austin last met with President Biden on Dec. 21 and tested negative that day, he said. He has not been to the Pentagon since Thursday, when he met briefly with a few members of his staff while wearing masks.

“As my doctor made clear to me, my fully vaccinated status — and the booster I received in early October — have rendered the infection much more mild than it would otherwise have been,” Austin said. “And I am grateful for that.”

Austin said he has informed his staff and Biden of the positive test. Contact tracing and testing of anyone he came into contact with over the past week is underway. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks will represent him “as appropriate” at events this week, Austin said.

The Pentagon has maximized telework throughout the pandemic and kept the building to about 40 percent of capacity recently, defense officials said.

Last month, seven members of the staff accompanying Hicks on a domestic trip tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of the trip, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. Hicks and other members of her immediate personal staff tested negative.