According to an undated draft Pentagon memo obtained by Task & Purpose on Tuesday, the Defense Department is preparing for “globally-persistent” COVID-19 through the summer of 2021.
"We have a long path ahead, with the real possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19," the memo says. "Therefore, we must now re-focus our attention on resuming critical missions, increasing levels of activity, and making necessary preparations should a significant resurgence of COVID-19 occur later this year.”
Task & Purpose noted the memo was drafted for Esper by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security Kenneth Rapuano, but it did not bear Esper’s signature, and it’s unclear if he ever saw the draft. The message was intended as a follow-up to previous guidance given by Esper on April 1.
A Pentagon spokesperson told Task & Purpose the memo was now outdated, but another defense official told the outlet it could still be distributed this month following a round of revisions.
The memo notes the continuation of special operating procedures, even as the US military begins to “open up” in the same manner as US states have, by slowly relaxing some restrictions on social grouping and interaction.
“All indications suggest we will be operating in a globally-persistent COVID-19 environment in the months ahead,” the memo says. “This will likely continue until there is wide-scale immunity, through immunization, and some immunity post-recovery from the virus.”
According to DoD statistics, on Tuesday there had been 5,765 COVID-19 cases among US service members and two deaths, with more than 1,000 of those cases on a single warship: the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. The outbreak forced the carrier to cancel planned patrols and put into port in Guam for more than a month.
The memo goes on to note that “clusters” of outbreaks will continue in tandem with the seasonal influenza outbreaks, and calls for increased virus testing and the establishment of a tracking database, both to monitor service members’ health statuses as well as perform contact tracing for infected persons.
The memo’s messaging stands in stark contrast to that presented by the White House and the Pentagon chief in public. During Friday comments in the White House Rose Garden, Esper told reporters, "Winning matters, and we will deliver by the end of this year a vaccine at scale.”
At the same news conference, US President Donald Trump compared the vaccine effort to the Manhattan Project, a World War II effort that led to the first atomic bomb.
“It’s called Operation Warp Speed. That means big, and it means fast. A massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor,” Trump said. “Its objective is to finish developing and then to manufacture and distribute a proven coronavirus vaccine as fast as possible. Again, we’d love to see if we could do it prior to the end of the year.”
Vaccine researcher Moncef Mohamed Slaoui, who is heading the “Operation Warp Speed” effort, also said the US “will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020.”
However, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has offered an estimation closer to the Pentagon memo. The federal bank chief told CBS in a Sunday interview that successive waves of outbreaks could continue for at least another year, sowing economic chaos and delaying a US and global economic recovery until late 2021.
Likewise, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump’s task force and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has said that a vaccine by January at the earliest is only “doable” if no serious problems are encountered, but that 18 months might not even be enough time.