The US military could be fighting COVID-19 for months, top Pentagon officials say

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The U.S. military’s efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) could go on for several months, top defense officials said Tuesday.

“I think we need to plan for this to be a few months long at least, and we're taking all precautionary measures to be in it for the long haul,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a live-streamed town hall, at which he answered questions from service members and families.

During the town hall, Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were asked how long the military is prepared to take actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected at least 174 service members as of Tuesday.

Based on data from China, South Korea, and other countries, the coronavirus outbreaks tend to last up to three months, Milley said.

Related: Troops say the US military is not taking COVID-19 seriously

“That may or may not apply to the United States, it may or may not apply to other different countries, different circumstances,” Milley said. “But we'll see. Some of that depends on what we do as a nation to mitigate it, to flatten that curve so to speak.”

There are at least three different models that predict how the coronavirus outbreak could play out: best case scenario, worst case scenario, and a middle road, Milley said.

Even though it is unclear if the coronavirus will spread at the same rate in the United States as it has elsewhere, it could be July before the disease finally crests, he said.

“But we in the United States military, we're going to do this as long as the mission takes,” Milley said. “That's what the president's asked, that's what the secretary's asked, and we in uniform are going to do whatever it takes to protect the American people.”

Neither Milley nor Esper was asked about President Donald Trump’s recent comments about scaling back social distancing measures in the coming weeks.

Trump told reporters on Monday that he wants to relax the restrictions soon to revive the U.S. economy.

“I'm not looking at months, I can tell you right now,” the president said during a White House news conference. “We're going to be opening up our country, and we're going to be watching certain areas. I mean, we're going to be watching this very closely. But you can’t keep it closed for the next, you know, for years.”