Senior Pentagon leadership quarantining after exposure to coronavirus

Senior Pentagon leadership are quarantining after exposure to the coronavirus. This file picture taken December 26, 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. By Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen, CNN

(CNN) -- The top US general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, and several members of the Pentagon's senior leadership are quarantining after a top Coast Guard official tested positive for coronavirus, several US defense officials tell CNN.

The Pentagon is "conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission," after vice commandant of the US Coast Guard, Adm. Charles Ray, tested positive on Monday, according to Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs.

Despite efforts by the Pentagon to stress that military leaders can carry on business as usual from quarantine, the prospect of the virus spreading among senior officials who work in one of the world's largest office buildings will likely raise major national security questions, particularly as it follows a major outbreak in the White House that hospitalized President Donald Trump and after three Republican senators tested positive in recent days.

"We are aware that Vice Commandant Ray has tested positive for COVID-19 and that he was at the Pentagon last week for meetings with other senior military leaders. Some meeting attendees included other Service Chiefs," Hoffman said in a statement Tuesday.

"Out of an abundance of caution, all potential close contacts from these meetings are self-quarantining and have been tested this morning. No Pentagon contacts have exhibited symptoms and we have no additional positive tests to report at this time," he added.

The Coast Guard is also taking precautions after Ray tested positive, "following established policies for COVID, per CDC guidelines, to include quarantine and contact tracing," the service announced Tuesday.

"According to CDC guidelines, any Coast Guard personnel that were in close contact will also quarantine. In accordance with established Coast Guard COVID policies, Admiral Ray will be quarantining from home," the statement said.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is not quarantining after returning from an overseas trip on Sunday. He participated in an event with his Bulgarian counterpart on Tuesday.

Close contact with senior Pentagon leaders

Ray was at the White House on September 27 for the Gold Star Mothers Event, the Coast Guard confirmed to CNN. Milley also attended .

Additionally, Ray was at the Pentagon on Friday and recently attended several meetings in secure areas with other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are the military's most senior generals.

Multiple defense officials tell CNN that senior Pentagon leadership who had been in proximity to Ray have been tested and are awaiting results.

The self-quarantining by senior leadership goes beyond the Joints Chiefs staff due to exposure at multiple meetings in recent days, including a meeting in the Pentagon's secure meeting space for classified information known as "the tank," the defense official said.

All but one member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is now self-quarantining and they have tested negative as of Tuesday afternoon with none currently having symptoms, the official added. The commandant of the Marine Corps was not in the meetings with Ray; his deputy was in attendance.

As a precaution, Milley is working from home, a defense official says. As Trump's top military adviser, he maintains a full classified communications suite in his house, the official said.

The chief of staff of the US Air Force, Charles Brown, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, and the chief of space operations, Gen. John Raymond, also are all working from home, according to several officials.

Additional officials working from alternate locations or from home include:

  • Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff;

  • Gen. James McConville, chief of staff of the Army;

  • Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard;

  • Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency;

  • Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the US Marine Corps,

White House outbreak

The news comes after Trump staged a reckless departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, telling his followers that the virus that dangerously deprived him of oxygen and hospitalized him for 72 hours was nothing to fear before posing for a mask-less photo-op on the White House balcony.

At least 11 of the President's aides or allies have either contracted the virus or -- in the case of his daughter Ivanka -- are working from home. Entire suites of offices sit vacant as Trump's aides work to isolate him in the residence and out of the West Wing.

In the White House residence, where he was speaking without a mask, an already slimmed-down staff has been reduced even further after the President and first lady both came down with coronavirus. At least one staffer -- who is military personnel directly assigned to support the President in the Oval Office and residence -- tested positive over the weekend, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Military leaders were among the first group of officials to issue a statement following Trump's positive diagnosis last week, making it clear in the hours that followed there was no indication of an immediate threat to the US homeland from a foreign adversary.

In a statement issued Friday morning, the Pentagon sought to alleviate fears that Trump's positive Covid-19 diagnosis presented a potentially imminent threat to national security, emphasizing that the development did not warrant a change in defense alert levels or military posture.

"There's no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces. Our national command and control structure is in no way affected by this announcement," said Hoffman at the time.

"The US military stands ready to defend our country and interests," he added.

Hoffman reiterated that point again Tuesday, saying that "there is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. Armed Forces."

"Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location. DoD has been following CDC guidelines since April with respect to temperature testing, social distancing, and the wearing of masks to the greatest extent when social distancing is not possible and will continue to do so," he said.

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