No, having COVID-19 doesn't disqualify you from joining the military

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As the world changes amid a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus, the Pentagon is figuring out how new military recruits with a past COVID-19 diagnosis will be screened.

A memo that began circulating on Twitter appeared to show guidance to Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS), saying that during “the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying.”

You can imagine the confusion that followed. 

But that memo contained interim guidance and was out of date, a Pentagon official said on condition of anonymity, pointing to updated guidance released on Wednesday.

The new direction for military processing stations, according to the official, says that individuals who had COVID-19 but were not hospitalized will be "medically qualified to process for accession 28 days following home isolation." 

Still, it adds that those who were hospitalized with the virus are "medically disqualified for accession," and subject to review of their hospitalization records and will need a waiver by a Service Medical Waiver Authority.

A statement from U.S. Medical Processing Command provided to Task & Purpose also says that non-hospitalized cases of COVID-19 are not permanently disqualified from future military service.

The statement says a more “conservative approach” will be needed in processing recruits who have been hospitalized and discharged, given that they “may be contagious for a longer period than others.”

Services have been working hard to adjust how they bring in new recruits. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all temporarily paused sending recruits to basic training and boot camp. The Army is also putting new soldiers in a two-week quarantine when they finally arrive to ensure they're healthy before starting training.

It’s unclear what that “conservative approach” would entail, but the statement went on to add that patients hospitalized by COVID-19 are “likely to require evaluation for residual physical performance limitations….before medical qualification.

“Residual and long-term health effects for individuals with severe outcomes, such as hospitalization or admission to an intensive care unit, from COVID-19, are unknown,” the statement said. “Consequently, a Service waiver review is required, and the Service authority may request additional testing.” 

COVID-19 can have a significant impact on a patient's lungs, depending on the severity of the case. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the virus has the potential to cause pneumonia, sepsis, or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). 

More mild cases are less likely to develop lasting issues, per Johns Hopkins, but as the CDC explains, it's unclear if a patient who has recovered from the virus develops immunity.

But the bottom line remains that no, simply having COVID-19 does not immediately disqualify you from joining the ranks.