By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command has tested negative for the new coronavirus, in what officials described on Tuesday as a precautionary step after meeting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s delegation in Florida on March 8.
Members of Bolsonaro’s delegation, including communications secretary Fabio Wajngarten, have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Bolsonaro’s delegation also met U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida during that same trip, leading to Trump also being tested for the virus, which was negative.
Southern Command confirmed that Navy Admiral Craig Faller tested negative for the virus after Reuters first published the results. Faller is the highest ranking U.S. military official known to have been tested for the coronavirus to date.
In a statement, Southern Command said it has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 and “results for all personnel tested are negative.”
“Out of respect for their privacy, we are not releasing the identities of the other individuals who were tested,” it said, without disclosing how many people were tested.
Southern Command said it had contacted and was closely monitoring all of its personnel who supported the Brazilian delegation’s visit to the command headquarters in Miami.
It added it was maximizing telework and was carefully reviewing upcoming events to determine if they should be postponed or canceled.
“This includes the recent curtailment of Exercise Vita in Colombia,” it said. Vita Colombia focuses on humanitarian operations and medical readiness training.
Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic are leading military commanders around the world to take unprecedented steps.
U.S. Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the Army’s top general in Europe, has been in self-isolation in Germany after meeting two European generals on March 6 who later tested positive for coronavirus.
“Nobody was showing symptoms of anything,” Cavoli, who is in good health, told Reuters in his first interview from isolation. “Everything was fine.”
The Pentagon on Tuesday doubled its tally of the number of troops worldwide with coronavirus to 36, up from 18 a day earlier and four cases a week ago. New cases include ones at Travis Air Force Base in California and Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
The military, which has 13 laboratories that can carry out testing, had conducted a total of 495 tests as of Monday.
On Sunday, the U.S. Navy reported the first positive case involving a sailor aboard a warship. Separately, a sailor from Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego tested “presumptive positive” for the coronavirus on Monday.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has started keeping himself and his staff physically separated from his deputy’s team to prevent a spread that might have an impact on Pentagon operations.
The Pentagon itself has undergone a transformation of sorts. Hallways at one of the world’s biggest office buildings, with as many as 26,000 personnel on a busy day, seem largely empty. Tours have been canceled and most visitors denied access.
Police blocked off access to a number of tables near Pentagon restaurants while buffet stations and soft drink machines were shuttered.
“All self-service station options are shut down,” a poster on the buffet line said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Sandra Maler)