The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus outbreak at Marine Corps boot camp infects dozens of recruits, staff members

A Marine Corps drill instructor leads a close-order drill at Parris Island, S.C. (Cpl. Richard Currier/Marine Corps)

A coronavirus outbreak has infected dozens of Marine recruits and staff members at the service’s East Coast recruit training center, prompting the suspension of additional arrivals for the foreseeable future, defense officials said Monday.

The cases at Parris Island, S.C., emerged following a “wave in testing” over the weekend, a defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. One official said there are at least 20 positive cases, and another said there are believed to be a few dozen but fewer than 50.

The outbreak could mark the Defense Department's largest yet. Defense officials have said that dozens of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the virus while on deployment in the Pacific, forcing a stop last week for treatment in Guam.

The Marine Corps acknowledged the suspension of recruits arriving at Parris Island on Monday but did not detail how many cases have emerged following a Pentagon decision last week to not provide specific information about coronavirus cases from individual bases and units.

Marine officials said in a statement that the service is taking steps to “protect its recruits, recruit training personnel, their families and the communities where they live and serve by temporarily suspending the shipping of new recruits” to Parris Island.

“The preservation of our Marines, recruits and their families is the highest priority for Marine Corps Recruiting during this national emergency,” Gen. David H. Berger, the service’s commandant, said in a written statement. “With that in mind, we’ve paused this week’s shipping of new recruits to Parris Island and will revise our overall shipping plan to ensure we are able to meet the Nation’s needs while protecting its next generation of Marines.”

The service wants to get a better understanding of how far the virus has spread before accepting any more recruits, one of the defense officials said. Recruits who have already begun training and are not believed to have been exposed to the virus will be allowed to continue and graduate.

But it is still not clear what additional steps may need to be taken, the official added.

“This is a fluid situation right now, and there’s a lot of discussions going on about what could happen down the line when it comes to America’s ability to defend itself,” the official said.

The cases were found as the service transitioned to requiring recruits to quarantine for 14 days before training to prevent the spread of the virus. The Navy has taken similar steps at its enlisted training center in Great Lakes, Ill.

Senior military officials discussed proactively stopping the training of new recruits earlier this month. Some senior Navy and Army officials recommended doing so, according to a Navy plan obtained by The Washington Post.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the issue March 16 and decided to continue recruit training because of concerns about how a stoppage could negatively affect the military, said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman.

The issue, Hoffman said then, will continually be evaluated.

Parris Island trains all enlisted women joining the service and all men from the eastern half of the country. Men from the western half train at a similar facility in San Diego.

A Marine spokesman in San Diego, Capt. Martin Harris, said the service continues to receive recruits there but that the number has been decreased to ensure there is enough space to allow social distancing and adequate staff to safely screen and evaluate them.

“This is a dynamic situation that continues to evolve,” Harris said.

Harris said that plans to ship additional recruits could be adjusted on a case-by-case basis, and that “discretion will be applied” to current and future plans.

Also Monday, the Pentagon announced that a New Jersey Army National Guardsman died Saturday after testing positive for the virus, marking the first coronavirus-related death of a U.S. service member.

Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok was a drilling guardsman and physician assistant, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said.

Esper called the death a “stinging loss.”

“Today is a sad day for the Department of Defense as we have lost our first American service member - active, reserve or Guard - to Coronavirus,” he said. “This is a stinging loss for our military community, and our condolences go out to his family, friends, civilian co-workers and the entire National Guard community.”

A civilian employee and a military spouse both died earlier this month after testing positive for the virus.

As of Monday morning, 569 service members, 220 Defense Department civilian employees, 190 family members and 64 contractors had tested positive for the virus, the Pentagon said.