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US Forces Korea raises health protection level again after spike in COVID-19 cases

Over the last several weeks, dozens of people affiliated with USFK have tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in South Korea
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A week after reducing its health protection level, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea has moved it back to HPCON Charlie “out of an abundance of caution” after a spike of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases among people arriving in South Korea.

Gen. Robert “Abe” Abrams, the head of USFK, said in a press release on Sunday that he has “complete confidence” that the Korean government “will suppress this outbreak and stop the spread.

“But,” Abrams said, “we must balance the overall health, safety and protection of the force with mission accomplishment, and that means immediately raising our health protection conditions and preventive control measures now.”

USFK has been an example for stateside commanders as to how they should work around COVID-19, implementing strict procedures and what Abrams called in March a “fundamental change in lifestyle.” 

On Aug. 10, USFK moved to HPCON Bravo due to the “continued low numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases.”

A medical professional from the 65th Medical Brigade conducts a nasal swab on an Eighth Army civilian employee who was randomly selected for Eighth Army COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Aug. 6 on Camp Humphreys, South Korea.

While the health protection level was lowered, places like bars and clubs were still out of bounds for USFK-affiliated personnel. 

“We must keep in mind the risk of COVID-19 still exists, and USFK must remain good ambassadors by being respectful and wearing a mask when out in the local community,” Abrams said in the press release. “Everyone has a vital role in preventing the spread of the virus.”

In the last several weeks, there has been a wave of positive cases among people arriving on the peninsula. USFK press releases identify dozens of USFK-affiliated members — whether U.S. service members, dependents of service members, or Defense Department contractors arriving in South Korea — as testing positive after their arrival. 

But, despite the spike in cases, a press release on Monday points out that there hasn’t been one “internal positive COVID-19 case” in USFK since mid-April, and that “less than 1 percent” of active-duty USFK service members have tested positive.

Upon arrival to South Korea, all personnel are tested, quarantined for two weeks, and have to pass another test before they’re released from the mandatory quarantine. Under HPCON Charlie, things like seated dining at restaurants off the military installations, amusement parks, theaters, bars, clubs, and groups of over 15 people are off limits. 

“We must protect the force to protect the mission,” Abrams said on Sunday.