WASHINGTON — A top Pentagon civilian has tested positive for COVID-19 after meeting with a foreign dignitary — who may have also exposed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller as well as the top civilians from the Air Force, Navy and Army, Defense News has learned.
Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis met with Miller, the service secretaries and retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary for policy, during a Nov. 13 visit to the Pentagon. Upon returning to Vilnius this week, he tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Miller, as well as Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, who met with Karbolis Nov. 16, have all tested negative and do not plan to self-isolate.
The disease, which has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 Americans, has an incubation period of up to 14 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is unclear when or where Karoblis contracted the disease and whether he was contagious during his visit to the Pentagon.
Photos from the meetings between Karoblis and Department of Defense leaders show those in attendance wearing face masks, although one formal photo shows Miller and Karoblis standing without face coverings.
In response to questions from Defense News about a possible infection, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said the department learned of Karoblis’ positive test Nov. 19 and began testing. Tata tested positive twice and will now isolate at home for 14 days.
“We have and are continuing to conduct further contact tracing of DoD personnel who have had close contact with the Lithuanian delegation or Mr. Tata, and are taking appropriate precautions in accordance with CDC guidelines,” Hoffman said. “Additionally, DoD personnel who had contact with the delegation have received or are receiving at this time rapid COVID tests as deemed necessary based on CDC protocols. Additional necessary testing for individuals who had contact with Mr. Tata is ongoing.
“We will report additional positive cases as appropriate.”
COVID-19 tests are more accurate the further from the date of potential infection, which is six days ago as of this story’s publication. However, individuals infected with COVID-19 can still spread the virus at any point during the 14-day infection period, according to the CDC. It is also possible that others in their circle were exposed during Karbolis’ visit or in the days after, when he traveled to Pennsylvania to meet with adjutant general Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli; in one photo posted on Twitter, Karbolis is seen without a mask.
The Pentagon leaders have made several public appearances since the meeting with Karoblis. On Tuesday, Miller made his first public comments since taking the helm by appearing in the briefing room to announce troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan; he then spent Wednesday traveling to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he met with members of the military, as well as the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.
The same day that Barrett met with Karoblis, she attended the retirement ceremony for Gen. Stephen Wilson, the outgoing Air Force vice chief of staff, along with several service leaders. On Nov. 18, McCarthy was present at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for its 100th anniversary, pictured both with and without a mask.
This is not the first coronavirus scare to hit top Pentagon leadership. On Oct. 6, almost the entirety of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chose to self-isolate after the vice commandant of the Coast Guard tested positive for the disease. On Oct. 19, the officers were given the all-clear to return to work in person.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.