U.S. Department of Defense

11/24/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/24/2020 20:20

Department of Defense Press Briefing on COVID-19

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN RATH HOFFMAN: All right, good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here for this briefing on COVID-19.

With me today are Ken Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security; Tom Muir, the director of Washington Headquarters Services; and Dr. Lee Payne of the Defense Health Agency. Mr. Rapuano, Mr. Muir and Dr. Payne will be giving brief updates and answering your questions here in just a minute.

As you're all aware, across the country and here in the National Capital Region, we've seen a general uptick in COVID-19 positive cases. As we head into the holiday season, we wanted to take this opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of taking preventive measures to mitigate against the spread of coronavirus, particularly following CDC guidelines, including wearing a mask, social distancing, hand-washing, staying home when feeling sick and other efforts.

From the start, the department has led on COVID-19 mitigation and response, and we are determined to do so in the coming weeks.

As announced on Thursday, the Pentagon Reservation will transition to Health Condition Bravo-Plus. Tom will talk a little bit more about that in a second.

We have seen DOD facilities around the country adjusting their health condition levels in the last few weeks, depending on local conditions. Just last week, the Acting Secretary was in Norfolk when the facility increased their condition level to Charlie, and we expect to see other increases in the coming weeks.

These changes are based on authorities delegated in March, giving commanders the flexibility to respond in the best interests of their personnel while maintaining mission effectiveness. We will of course keep everyone posted on additional force condition level changes.

As you are aware, and as many of us just heard a couple hours ago in the press conference by Operation Warp Speed, we've seen tremendous progress on what is now the third vaccine candidate that is shown to have strong efficacy rates against COVID-19, and we're all tracking that the medical experts at the FDA will consider emergency use authorization of vaccines in the near future.

Thanks to the vital efforts by the administration's Operation Warp Speed under Gen. Perna and our partners in the private sector, we are now a significant step closer to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the coming weeks, Americans will begin to see vaccine distribution far and wide.

The department continues to support this whole-of-government response and is immensely proud of the work that has gone into Warp Speed up until now. We have a long way to go, but the department's prepared to assist in any way necessary.

At this point, I'm going to turn it over to -- to Mr. Rapuano for some opening comments.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE KENNETH R. RAPUANO: Thanks, Jon.

The Department of Defense has three main objectives for COVID-19 response. The first is protection of the DOD workforce and their families, the second is safeguarding the department's mission capabilities and readiness, and the third is the support to the whole-of-government and international responses for COVID-19.

DOD's primary support to U.S. government response has been providing military medical personnel to augment civilian medical facilities in areas experiencing high COVID hospitalization rates. Today, there are over 20,000 National Guardsmen deployed in 52 states and territories providing COVID support. DOD has military medical personnel on prepare-to-deploy orders, available to support state and local requests for assistance that come through FEMA and HHS within as early as 48 hours upon request.

Our current support includes 62 medical personnel, that's three medical support teams to support three hospitals in El Paso, Texas; 60 nurses and additional personnel to support local hospitals and long-term care facilities in North Dakota; and in Guam, we have 18 medical professionals for 24/7 telemedicine support for the civilian hospital on the island. We also have a small critical care physician team being sent to a local hospital in Guam.

We've had significant transfer of personal protection equipment. Since the spring of 2020, DOD transferred 20 million N95 masks, approximately over 7 million COVID test swabs, and almost a thousand ventilators to federal departments and agencies for COVID support. On the research and development front, the department has spent almost $1.5 billion for COVID-19 research and development in F.Y. '20.

So it really is a whole-of-government response and it's a whole-of-DOD response in terms of being ready to support other federal departments and agencies in their support to civil authorities around the country as we see cases come up.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right, Tom?

MR. RAPUANO: I'll leave it at that.

DIRECTOR THOMAS M. MUIR: Thank you, Jonathan.

I'm Tom Muir, the director of Washington Headquarters Services. As Mr. Hoffman mentioned, as a result of -- following on what Ken just mentioned, we're at workplace safety for our people and their families is our number-one priority. We've adjusted the force health protection condition, or HPCON, here in the Pentagon, and we've moved from Bravo to Bravo-plus, which essentially tightens some restrictions. We're publishing that guidance. It's already out on www.whs.mil, as well as defense.gov websites for the latest guidance. We also are updating our employee handbooks, which are available at all of our Pentagon entrances. Let me kind of recap the changes that we've made to our health protection condition guidance here in the Pentagon.

Once again, we believe that these measures are an abundance of caution and prudent, when you look at the actions taken by the governor of Maryland, Virginia and the mayor of D.C. over the last several days to mitigate the spread of COVID in our communities. Our measures are in strict alignment with guidance from Center for Disease Control.

Under Bravo-plus, we are not reverting -- we're not changing our phased opening status. We still remain at phase two of our Pentagon Plan for Resilience, so we're not closing more portions of the Pentagon. We are, however, particularly due to the holiday season, adjusting our workforce in the building, moving from a goal of 80% of the building, 20% telework, moving to a goal now of 40% to the building, 60% telework. But we've been achieving about a 50-50 mix, really, since about the last several months, with about 50% of the workforce in the building.

Of course, this aligns with the holiday period, where a lot of our workforce are taking advantages of time with family and friends, in terms of leave, but they're also taking advantage of the ability to continue the mission through a distributed and virtual workforce environment.

We're also going to maximize, as we mentioned, telework not just for our normal employees, but of course, continue to ensure that those that are vulnerable to the most serious consequences from COVID remain at home and do not come into the office. We are also, of course, mandating cloth face coverings remain a requirement on Pentagon Reservation if you cannot maintain social distance.

We're going to increase the random frequency of our checks at the main entrances to the Pentagon. We currently are doing about five%. We're going to move that to about 10 to 15%. Once again, these are checks for health and readiness -- or health and wellness, rather, of individuals coming through the Pentagon -- if they've been exposed to someone with COVID-19, if someone in their family has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or how they feel this morning. Do they feel a little sick, fever? And then a crosscheck of temperatures and then, of course, if they are found to have been exposed and/or have a temperature, we'll refer to their supervisor, and then refer them to proper medical authorities so they can receive the medical care that they need.

Gathering on the Pentagon Reservation will be reduced from 50 as our maximum down to 25, once again, in order to help us maintain social distance through the holidays. We, of course, continue to have increased parking available in the Pentagon itself, because many of our mass-transit partners are -- are not necessarily at full operating capacity right now, so many of our employees are choosing to drive to the Pentagon in single-occupancy vehicles.

The food court will move to take out only. We'll restrict kind of access to food courts. Some of our vendors, of course, will scale down some of their hours, but we anticipate their continued support as we go through the holiday season to HPCON Bravo-Plus.

And I'll turn it over now to Dr. Lee Payne, and then I'll take questions later. Thank you.

MAJOR GENERAL LEE E. PAYNE: Well, good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us here today, both in the room and those on the phone. I'm the lead for the Coronavirus Task Force diagnostic and testing line of effort. I'd like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on some key issues concerning COVID-19 testing within the department.

In partnership with the services and the combatant commands, the Defense Health Agency and the Joint Staff, as the lead for diagnostics and testing, my mission is to standardize and synchronize COVID-19 testing across the department in order to mitigate risk to the force in alignment with the department's priorities. We're also tasked to determine the best location for equipment, material and supplies necessary to perform COVID-19 testing and direct their transfer, movement or delivery as necessary, based on the service-validated operational requirements.

Since I last provided the update on this topic in July, we've continued to execute tests above the department's original estimates of 50- to 60,000 tests per week. We're now conducting over 70,000 tests each weeks and have -- and have been for the past five weeks. These numbers are inclusive of active-duty -- duty service members and select Reserve and Guard units, such as deploying Reserve component units. We also continue to perform diagnostic and screening testing on family members and retiree beneficiaries, and to date, we've conducted over 1.7 million tests since January.

Now, the ability to perform over 70,000 in a week is not a singular effort by the department. We could not perform at this level without the help of our inter-department, interagency and industry partners to procure supplies and integrate and implement emerging technologies. Department testing capacity has continued to expand greatly since the July update. At that time, there were 125 department labs certified for COVID-19 testing around the globe with the capability to conduct about over 200,000 tests. As of last week, we have 158 operational laboratories with the overall capacity to conduct nearly 300,000 tests per week.

Though the department faces supply challenges that are in line with the rest of the country, we've continued to find creative and agile solutions to mitigate any shortfalls. These solution include the use of pool testing, leveraging existing partnerships with commercial laboratories and implementing new testing technologies. And despite these supply shortage -- intermittent supply shortages, the department is regularly able to complete over 99% of their prior tests each week.

Since April, when we started, the landscape as - as a -- as a COVID test force line of effort, the landscape for the COVID testing 19 testing has continually evolved, and our strategy has, as well. Originally, the department strategy was heavily reliant on molecular COVID-19 tests for the detection of SARS-CoV-2, as those tests are the gold standard for detection. They often become supply-constrained during demand spikes. To mitigate this, we've worked to expand our testing toolkit to include new technology such as point-of-care molecular tests, oral swab and antigen tests. And additionally, we've leveraged CDC and FDA guidance to develop protocols that help frontline clinicians determine the right test for the right situation, depending on the patient's unique circumstances.

We've also taken key steps to identify critical points in this testing supply chain and appropriate action -- actions to mitigate those shortages throughout each phase of the pandemic. We will continue to lead from the front, identifying and investing in new technologies that will allow the department to accomplish -- accomplish our mission and protect our force and families.

The department continues to emphasize foundational public health measures that remain essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Like much -- much of the rest of the nation, we are seeing increased positive rates across our system as we work to identify those that may have the disease and are at risk for transmitting it to others.

I'm proud of the work completed to date, but we know there is much yet to be done. The combined efforts of the department's testing strategy and enforcement of required public health mitigation measures has enabled the department to effectively manage the challenges of COVID-19 while most importantly, continuing to meet our operational requirements. We look forward to continuing to expand our partnerships, capitalize on and implement new emerging research, technologies and capabilities that will allow us to grow our testing ability and further reduce the spread of COVID-19, ensuring mission readiness and keeping our service members and their families safe.

I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving week, and as a physician, I offer my thanks, my respect and admiration to those colleagues on the front lines caring for patients across the military health system and the nation this week.

I look forward to answering your questions.

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay. With that, we will open it up to questions. I'll go first to the phones for AP, is Bob on the line?

Q: Yes, I am. Yes, I am. Thank you, Jonathan. Can I ask Jonathan a couple of quick questions? First, you mentioned Operation Warp Speed. Can you tell me, what is the military's role, if it does have one, with regard to providing security, either physical security or cyber security for the vaccine production and distribution?

And my second question is about whether you can bring us up to date on the transition interactions that have taken place so far between DOD and the Biden camp?

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay. I'll take the first one and have Tom talk on the second one, because in addition to being responsible for the Pentagon Reservation here, he's also the director of the transition task force.

So on the first question, Warp Speed briefed earlier today. Gen. Perna gave a pretty lengthy description of what's taking place. I'm not going to get into the security protocols that they have put in place. That would not be appropriate of me. It's going to be a combination of a number of different teams. It is something that they are taking into consideration that these are valuable vaccines. And we need to ensure that they get to those who are most in need of them first.

And so there are security provisions in place. But I'd refer you over to Warp Speed for that. I don't want to speak on behalf of them and what of all measures they may be taking in addition to DOD's support.

So I'll turn it over to Tom to talk on the transition.

MR. MUIR: Thank you, Jonathan.

As Jonathan mentioned I'm the head of the Department of Defense's Transition Task Force. And as such I'm accountable to carry out the requirements of the statute of the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as updated eight times since then. And we have a DOD policy that guides our actions during transition activities. And, of course, we've got governance boards that meet with the Deputy Secretary and key leaders here in the department that is provided monthly status updates on this process since early June.

Last evening we did receive a notice last evening from the GSA Administrator in response to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 that made certain post-election resources available to the Biden-Harris Transition Team. The head of the Biden-Harris Transition Team did reach out to me personally last night. We had a conversation. They emailed and we had our first meeting this morning between the Department of Defense and the Biden-Harris Transition Team, what they call the Agency Review Team, or the ART, the A-R-T, you'll hear that referred to often.

This is in-line, both once again, with the Presidential Transition Act, the White House and Biden-Harris Memorandum of Understanding between those two organizations, and DOD policy. We are aligned with our statutory requirements. We are executing our responsibilities under the Presidential Transition Act, and our DOD policy. We're looking forward to continuing the process with the Biden-Harris Transition Team in the near future and throughout the transition period.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right, Bob. We'll go next to -- is Phil, are you on the line?

We'll come back and hear from the room?

Q: Thanks, Jonathan. I had a question for Ken regarding the deployments -- regarding the deployments in North Dakota, I think you said it was to seek long care term assistance? What impact has the COVID spike in North Dakota, particularly around Minot, had on defensive positions, the NORAD sites and other defense activities that are part of the Department of Defense? Has that influenced the deployment? And does that -- did you guys initiate the deployment or was it at the request of FEMA, HHS, please? Thank you.

MR. RAPUANO: So this came through the ESF 8, the Emergency Support Function Council of FEMA, HHS, and DOD participates in that group as well. Ultimately, the group considers the prioritization, considers the actual need or degree of need by their requesting state or locality, and then they make a recommendation.

FEMA provided us with a confirmed request for assistance for that support. So that support was not predicated on DOD personnel at any of the facilities in the region.

Q: Does it have impact at all, COVID in North Dakota, on the DOD facilities in the state?

MR. RAPUANO: So I don't have a base-by-base take off, but we do see a relationship between the caseload in localities in the vicinity of DOD facilities. But of course our demographics are different than the general public so, we don't have -- we haven't experienced the -- yet of hospitalizations that we have seen.

Q: You did say long-term care assistance, correct, in North Dakota?

MR. RAPUANO: Yes to long-term care facilities, correct.

Q: Thank you.

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay. All right.

Q: Could you explain why there seem to be so fewer deployments now of military and medical teams than there were last spring when the first spike occurred and now we're in a much bigger wave, that the deployments seem to be a lot less, why is that?

MR. RAPUANO: So the real reason is, number one, the diluted case dispersion around the country. You are not seeing that heavy, heavy load that we saw in the Northeast, northern New Jersey and New York City, where it overwhelmed the medical support systems in place.

They have essentially developed enhanced treatment capabilities that reduce the amount of time spent hospitalized for individuals. So across the board there are a number of improvements based on experience dealing with the cases, also based on that dilution of the cases per geographic areas where we're not seeing the degree.

El Paso, we've seen significant caseloads, where in some cases the hospitals were becoming quite - quite full in terms of their bed space. And that's where we focused our support. But as you noted, significantly less to date, that could change. When and if that changes we want to make sure that we have sufficient capabilities to address those circumstances that are the most needing.

Q: How many personnel do you have on these prepare-to-deploy orders?

MR. RAPUANO: So we have hundreds now and we can increase as -- as needed.

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay. We'll go back to the phones. We'll go to Carla Babb.

Q: Hey, Jonathan, thank you so much for doing this. This question is for you since it's the first opportunity to ask a question to you or the Secretary since the announcement about drawing down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan further.

I was wondering since violence in Afghanistan is up 50% from last quarter to this quarter, that's according SIGAR [Special Inspector General for Afghanistan], and commanders have repeatedly told VOA [Voice of America] and others that the Taliban hasn't shown conclusively that they are going to break with Al Qaida, what are the conditions that are driving this decision on the ground?

And then also secondly, when the announcement was made, a senior defense official had told reporters on background that the cuts were going to result in no elimination of capabilities on the ground, but several U.S. military officials have told VOA that a significant reduction of forces like this would lead to at least some reduction of the scope of the mission, if all the missions indeed were going to continue in Afghanistan. So can you help square how we're going to lose nearly half of the troops in Afghanistan and nearly 20% of the troops in Iraq and none of the capabilities are going to be lost?

MR. HOFFMAN: So ultimately the Department of Defense is implementing the commander-in-chief's decision with regard to these engagements. And so, as we saw, the president had received advice from his national security team, he received advice from his military commanders, and then he made a decision on what the force levels would be within Afghanistan and Iraq.

I was not part of the briefings with the president, so I can't share the conversations that took part in those -- those conversations. But the overarching conditions -- and these were discussed last week, and I know all of you are aware of it is: would a reduction of forces result in a national security threat to the American homeland, our people and our interests? And would our forces still be able to continue the operations necessary to maintain a posture capable of mitigating any such future threat that may emerge?

And the decisions with those is that the reduction was not going to -- to put our national security at risk, and that with the force level that the president has directed, that we would be able to maintain the ability to respond in the future.

So -- so that was the calculus, that's my understanding that was based on the president's decision that he gave. I can't speak to your second question as to what some of your sources may have said. I can -- be happy to put you in touch with the CENTCOM and Resolute Support leadership to get their actual take on it, but I can't speak to the unnamed sources you mentioned there.

All right, we'll go off to the phone. Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hi, sir. I have a couple questions. One, was the -- was the move to Bravo-Plus at all precipitated by an increase in the positivity rates of COVID testing, of personnel in the Pentagon Reservation?

And I have a second question.

MR. HOFFMAN: I'll take first crack at that and turn it over to Tom.

The decision to go to Bravo-Plus was made a few days ago, I think late last week. I know there was some speculation and questions were posited to us about the visit of the Latvian defense minister -- sorry, Lithuanian defense minister, and whether that had any impact.

The decision to increase, as Tom mentioned before, is a reflection of the local community. All of our bases are part of local communities. And so when we look at what the force protection level is, it is a reflection of what is happening not only within our facilities, but outside of those gates.

As Tom has mentioned, our personnel, more so at our bases, in the field than at the Pentagon, are much younger, healthier, dynamic than the surrounding populations, and so we have a little bit of a different calculus. But that is what we look at, we look at what's going on outside the gates and we've seen both the governors of Virginia and the governor of Maryland and the mayor of the District of Columbia all increase their measures to counter COVID, and so we responded to that as well.

I don't -- Tom, if there's anything else?

MR. MUIR: I'd just say that aligned with our local communities. You know, we are a product of our communities that we live in. Although the Pentagon is significantly lower COVID spread than any other building that I'm aware of in the D.C. metropolitan region, because we have a well-informed, well-educated, deliberate workforce that takes care of themselves and their families, wears protective masks, washes their hands and maintains social distance whenever possible to do their mission.

We are seeing, of course, much like the rest of the nation, the impacts of social gatherings, particularly when we let our guard down and do not use social distancing or masks to protect ourselves and our families, so we did see a positive bump around the community here in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia areas due to social gatherings, bars, restaurants, et cetera, which of course the governors and the mayors have commented on. We saw the same here in the Pentagon workforce.

MR. HOFFMAN: Sylvie?

Q: I have a question about the transition. So (Laughter.) --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- I wanted to have a little bit more details on how it works -- because I don't know how it works.

MR. MUIR: Sure.

Q: So is it daily meetings that you are going to have with the transition team? Are you going to give them some intelligence about what's going on? How is it going to work?

MR. MUIR: Sure. Once again, our reference on this is the Presidential Transition Act of 1963. This has been updated eight times in statutes since. That's kind of our baseline. And from there, GSA, in partnership with the White House, has developed a very rigorous and well-defined best practices playbook.

In fact it's actually published, there's a playbook for presidential transitions. It's actually published by our friends in the Partnership for Public Service and other non-profit agencies, that kind of capture these best practices over successive presidential transitions throughout the years.

Part of our responsibilities under the act is to be prepared to receive the agency review teams, and then provide them updates on the Department of Defense activities in preparation for a presidential transition. That process actually began many months ago, where we had to deliberately -- by statute, once again -- provide what we call a 'Plum Book,' which is a listing of all non-career political appointee positions in the department; a succession plan that says if there's a vacancy in the department, that there's reliable continuity of leadership within the Department of Defense for each of our mission areas and for each of our organizations.

And finally, we had to provide what we call 'interim transition books,' which essentially are a primer, if you will, of organizational structures, budget, mission, charters -- all the details that go into running the organization, which includes the military departments, the Joint Staff, National Guard Bureau and, of course, our Office of Secretary of Defense components.

So a very detailed, elaborate, deliberate system. It begins with engagement, following ascertainment by the GSA Administrator, which was effective last evening, therefore we've had two discussions now with the Agency Review Team. Those will be daily discussions, moving forward, likely, and we'll be responsive to the requirements while ensuring that we implement the National Defense Strategy of the United States during this time of vulnerability for our nation.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right, we'll keep going on the phone. Aaron, Defense News?

Q: Yeah, thanks, Jonathan.

Two questions. First, I'd like to get an answer to Tony's question about when the Secretary, as well as the other service secretaries who had interactions with the Lithuanian minister were last tested, and if they tested negative.

And then more broadly, just what's the plan for exactly where service members and families fall on the priority list for receiving the vaccine going forward.

MR. HOFFMAN: Sorry, I apologize, Tony, I forgot to respond to your question, I must have blacked out there for a minute.

I -- as we -- as of the statement we provided last week when we were first made aware of the Lithuanian minister, that we conducted testing of the senior leaders that had contact with the minister, and in keeping with our practice, I'll let you know if there's a positive test.

I'll tell you that at this time, we conducted testing and the only positive test that came out of the testing with regard to meetings with the Lithuanian minister was the previously reported test, positive test of Tony Tata.

So with the -- the second question was with the guidance. So -- with vaccines. This was kind of discussed a little bit on the Warp Speed call this morning with Secretary Azar and -- and others.

Within the Department of Defense, we historically follow the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, CDC and FDA guidance. And so they're meeting, they're having conversations about what the final guidance would be.

I can give you generally what the initial guidance for CDC vaccinations is, and that was going to be -- and this is from -- from that organization, this is that we would be likely following was -- health care personnel, non-health care essential workers, adults with high risk of medical conditions, and -- adults with high-risk medical conditions and people 65 years of age or older living in long-term care facilities.

You'll see from that list that the department may not have a huge number of individuals that fall into those initial categories. Most of our personnel, particularly uniformed personnel, are -- are much younger, under the age of 30. They're -- they're -- they're fit, not a lot of secondary high-risk medical conditions.

And so we'll be looking over that in the coming weeks, as the plan is put together. We have been in -- in contact with the CDC and -- and the -- in putting our plan in place and reviewing it. I know that there have been meetings undergoing at the department, that the -- the -- the Deputy Secretary of Defense is leading this review as we establish this plan under the direction of the Defense Health Agency, and as soon as we are at a place where we're prepared, with the approval of CDC and -- and FDA, to -- to release that information, we'll be doing so, and so that's -- that's a briefing we plan to provide in the coming weeks.

Q: But more than likely, your -- your medical personnel would -- would get the vaccinations, along with their compadres in the civilian world, right?

MR. HOFFMAN: I -- I -- just from the guidance -- I can't speak to our internal guidance because it's not finalized and -- and I haven't reviewed it specifically, but I'll give you the guidance that is provided from -- from CDC and from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which the initial guidance they gave was to -- was to, in part, prioritize healthcare professionals. So, Barbara?

Q: Mr. Muir, could I take you back to the issue of track - of the transition planning you're doing and -- and the way ahead? Because my question is sort of the same as Sylvie's. For those of us who aren't terribly familiar with the regulations and the policies, I think what we're maybe looking for is some very practical ways to explain it.

So when you say -- for example, when you say, 'daily meetings,' because there's so much teleworking, can you tell us will the transition team have full office space, will they be limited on how many people they bring in? Do you think your meetings -- and has -- was your meeting virtual, will many of them be virtual? Kind of lead us looking at the lay of the land.

And more specifically, I didn't hear you mention that the -- you mentioned the kinds of things they would be briefed on as part of the regular way of doing this. Does that include -- do they get military intelligence briefings, do they have access to military personnel, and at what -- what level -- perhaps the -- the big question -- are you the decision maker, do you get to decide what is done, or do you have to run everything through Chief of Staff Patel for his permission and the Secretary's permission?

MR. HOFFMAN: So we'll let Tom take the first seven of those (Laughter.) I'll take the last one, but I -- but I -- but I don't want to -- I don't want to devolve this in-briefing into just a transition briefing, because we do want to hit the COVID-related issues that are facing us as we approach Thanksgiving.

So --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- I was raising my hand consistently, so I would -- I would think Mr. Muir probably doesn't mind answering all of --

MR. HOFFMAN: And I said we'll be happy to take the first -- Tom will be happy to take the first seven of those, so Tom?

MR. MUIR: So let me begin with the meetings. Each review team obviously reached out last evening; we had our first discussions and exchanged electronic e-mails. The first meeting today was by video teleconference, virtual. Good, productive meetings, we kind of laid out sort of the ground rules.

I can tell you that the team is willing and certainly able to abide by the COVID restrictions here in the Pentagon. They agree with the protection measures that we're doing for our families, our employees, ourselves, our colleagues, our comrades here in the Pentagon. They're looking forward to participating in discussions in the Pentagon. In fact, I'm providing a small tour on Monday next week for some of the Agency Review Team leaders here in the Pentagon.

There is dedicated office space for them in the Pentagon, in the Reservation -- here in the building, actually -- that we provided for them. It allows for social distancing, for six feet between work spaces, to include video teleconference capacities of the unclassified side and at the classified side.

As you discussed, there will be many that want updated intelligence briefings and updated briefings on operational plans -- many of those, once again, by statute. One of the many changes over the last 50 years -- 57 years, of the Presidential Transition Act, is to allow the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to initiate background investigations and security clearances on many of the agency review team leaders. So many will come here with top secret clearances, adjudicated -- investigated and adjudicated by the Department of Justice, reciprocated by the Department of Defense, which will allow them access to intelligence.

They'll have access at the appropriate levels, with signed nondisclosure agreements, 'cause once again the materials that they're going to review -- once again, particularly if they're classified, many are not for public distribution or release -- they'll be privy to and we'll respond to their queries, their questions, their requests for deeper dives, briefing materials, products, releases.

In terms of the decision processes, we work in support of the Secretary of Defense for this operation. It is part of our alignment for a professional, efficient, effective and transparent -- where the agency review team process and we're committed to doing that while executing our National Defense Strategy.

So we have prepared for this for quite some time, for six months. We are prepared to receive the Agency Review Team. I believe that some will work in the building, I think some will do virtual. Some of the members are not in the D.C. area, we think we'll be communicating with them via video teleconference -- that is either at the secure side or the unclassified side, if that's the dialogue that they want to get into -- and we're committed to both supporting our statutory requirements and to continuing our mission here in the department.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right -- all right. We'll go to Scott from Fed News Network.

Q: You're not going to answer my question?

MR. HOFFMAN: Oh, I thought he handled the -- the --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- my -- my outstanding question is, what is the level of approval, from Mr. Muir, and what -- does everything have to get the Chief of Staff Patel's approval, the Secretary's approval? At what level do decisions to share information or work with the transition team have to be approved by the Chief of Staff or the Secretary?

MR. HOFFMAN: And I thought Tom answered it there at the end there, in saying that the goal here is to be professional, efficient, and transparent and ensure that the team has the information that they need to be successful and ensure that our national security through this -- throughout this transition time is -- is ensured.

Do --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. HOFFMAN: -- there -- there will be -- decisions are going to be made on regard -- I think there's some classification conversations that -- that'll go into it and I think -- part of it to take into account is the Secretary's in charge of the transition -- I mean the -- the -- the Secretary -- Acting Secretary of Defense is in charge of this transition.

Tom is -- is the -- going to be the career official handling it. He's been working very closely with the Deputy Secretary on this. I think the -- Tom, you said the Deputy Secretary has been ensuring that the workspace is -- is correct and that they -- the binders have been reviewed. He's making sure that that all has been done appropriately.

I spoke with -- with the Chief of Staff today, and he has -- he has assured me that Tom Muir is the -- is the lead on this and that he's going to be working with Tom and Tom is going to be the one working with the -- the -- the team today.

The Chief of Staff reached out to the Agency Review Team lead today, as well, to provide his contact information, let her know that if they -- that if she needs anything, that she is welcome to reach out to him. His goal is to be the -- the touch point for the Secretary and ensure that the Secretary has insight into what's going on and to make sure that the transition is successful.

Q: Thank you.

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay.

MR. MUIR: If I could, just two quick thoughts of context. One is that we've been running a governance process in support of this, aligned with our policy, for quite some time, as I mentioned. There's a senior steering group that meets monthly -- in fact, we're probably going to increase that now that there's been ascertainment -- led by the Deputy Secretary and the Vice Chairman. So senior leaders from the department participates, I provide them updates every month about our current status of preparation, our plans, next steps and the next meeting structures.

We're also meeting what would - with what -- what we call the transition assistance coordinators. These are designated senior officials, general officers and career senior executives, in each of our Cabinet agencies, each of our military departments -- Joint Staff, National Guard Bureau, our Office of Secretary of Defense components. We meet weekly, just met Monday, and we discuss and a -- and to include, I'm sorry, the combatant commands, as well, have a representative on this transition assistance coordinator process -- we meet with them weekly and we update them as to the status of both our plans, activities, next steps; there's where we're going to have the real discussion on deliverables, materials, next set up a meeting, scheduling senior leaders for interviews with the agency review team. We work these through our partners, so it's a collaborative governance structure underneath our policy structures.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right. Let's go back to the phones. Scott from Fed News Network?

Q: Yeah, good afternoon. So, you know, in the past few days, past week or so, we've seen really some of the largest numbers and spikes for service members being diagnosed with COVID-19. I'm curious, I realize that this is up to local commanders, but do you expect -- I think you have about 60% that are open or don't have restrictions right now -- do you expect that number to go down as these cases continue to rise?

And is the Defense Department as a whole considering any other sort of policies that might go into effect now that you have nearly 75,000 service members who have been diagnosed to date?

MR. HOFFMAN: Scott, with the 60% number, what -- what exactly are you referencing with that?

Q: That would be the -- the number of bases that are -- military installations that have eased their restrictions and gone green.

MR. HOFFMAN: I -- I'm not sure that that number's exactly right -- I -- I -- and if it -- and if it was correct at some point in the -- the recent past, I would expect that that number, you're going to see an increase of -- of facilities going to Charlie. I think the Navy has -- across the board has -- has increased their level to Charlie. We've seen facilities -- I think I mentioned Norfolk -- in the last week -- facilities in -- in the northeast. So I think you'll -- you'll continue to see that.

Once again, that's going to be decisions based on local communities and -- and the operational needs of the services and the bases. So I -- I think yes, we will see those -- those -- those closures go up.

Back to the question on generally will there be any additional DOD measures put in place, we feel comfortable with the levels that we've put in place in the past and that we have -- we have weathered this relatively well, based on the guidance that was provided back in -- in February of this year.

As -- as Ken pointed out, the -- the number of -- the number one priorities of the department were to protect our people and ensure we continue to do our missions. And so those guidance that has been pushed out by former Secretary Esper and the continuation through the Acting Secretary Miller, has allowed the commanders to make decisions they need to protect their forces.

So I -- I don't see any -- any blanket changes in policy that are -- that are being considered. I think we'll continue to watch and let commanders make the decisions on the ground and -- and then we'll do things like we're doing here today, is to -- to reiterate to our forces and to double down and let them know that -- to take these measures seriously.

There's nothing wrong with commanders and -- and everyone stepping up to restate the -- the need to wear masks, to do social distancing, to wash hands and to -- and to follow through with those mitigation measures.

And -- and then at the -- the second part, we're going to look to support the -- the Operation Warp Speed and vaccination efforts and hope to reach a point in the near future where vaccinations are -- are out the door and -- and people are being treated and we start to see a -- a -- a different curve with respect to -- to COVID.

All right, we'll go to Nick from PBS. All right, not hearing Nick. We'll go to Jeff from Task & Purpose.

Q: Thank you. Two quick questions -- will families and service members be required to get a COVID vaccine? And has Defense Secretary Miller responded to Bill Belichick's request that the U.S. confront Turkey and Azerbaijan over the war with Armenia?

MR. HOFFMAN: Well fortunately, I -- I will say that -- that there is a peace agreement in place right now in -- in -- between Azerbaijan and Armenia that appears to be holding at the -- the current point. So we may be able to forestall having a -- a summit between the Acting Secretary and -- and Coach Belichick to discuss that.

And then with regard to your first question, which I forgot already -- please remind me, Jeff.

Q: Sure. Will troops and families be required to get a -- a -- a COVID vaccine? Will it be mandatory?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have information for you to share on that right now. I am going to defer that -- answering that question to when we give the vaccination update in the -- in the coming weeks, and we'll have a -- a fuller conversation about what will and will not be required, but at -- at this time, Jeff, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to be able to share that.

All right, we got a couple more. Meghann?

Q: Oh, Jeff took my question.

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay. The Belichick question? (Laughter.)

Q: Yes, yes, that's what I've been holding onto that all week (Laughter.) --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Oh, I do have a question. When -- well this was a little bit murky in -- in your response to Tony and Aaron, but when was Acting Secretary Miller's last negative COVID test?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I -- we have -- we've kind of set the standard before that we're not going to get into every single negative test that a senior leader does. I can just say that in the time the Secretary's been here, whether it's between testing prior to travel, testing as a result of the close contact that was reported, testing due to a White House meeting, he's been tested more than a half dozen times in the two weeks that he's been the Secretary of Defense and I have no positive cases -- no positive test results to report.

All right, we'll go to the phones for the last one. Courtney Kube?

Q: My question was asked as well. Thanks.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right. You have a follow up for me? All right.

Q: (Inaudible) - do you have time for one COVID question?

MR. HOFFMAN: Yes -- yes, Barbara.

Q: I would like to ask the doctor something. So can you -- for -- for people who work in this building, in the Pentagon, the issue of contact tracing is confusing to me, including reporters who work here, and I was wondering if you -- or whoever the appropriate person is, and I apologize if I'm asking --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- well my question is -- is really this -- so somebody is tested and they come back positive and you might say to them 'so who have you -- who have you been in contact with in the building,' in terms of contact tracing inside the Pentagon.

Well, most reporters never hear of any cases of positive because we're not told of positive cases in this building. How can you advise the news media to ensure that they have full awareness of who may be tested, who may be positive, so we're not inadvertently being unknown spreaders, asymptomatic, anything like that?

Nobody's ever really explained it to us and this is the opportunity for us to ask. What's -- how do we learn more about what's going on inside the Pentagon?

MR. MUIR: Sure. From a -- from a Pentagon perspective, we do have a very robust contact tracing program, but you're right, though, it relies upon reporting -- good, accurate reporting, that if I am sick and I tell my supervisor that I was tested in my local community and that I'm positive for COVID, then my supervisor would report that into our operations center here in the Pentagon, which (inaudible) rolls that up to Joint Staff.

From there within 24 hours we -- our policy right now is to contact the person who is reported to be positive and then ask them who they've been in close personal contact with, particularly during the time period that they were symptomatic. And you're right, there are many people that are asymptomatic that are tested and then become positive.

And so, we look for 48 to 72 hours prior to their -- and often times it's a little bit of lag in terms of testing, right? You get tested, you find the results two or three days later, hence the CDC guidelines asks for 48 hours before they were symptomatic, shows an opportunity to spread the COVID virus inside the work place.

So, then we ask them who's been in close personal contact for more than 15 minutes, now it's over a 24 hour period, less than six feet, without a mask on or with a mask on, and we identify those people by name.

What helps is when they've maintained, where they understand who they've been in close personal contact with, and often times in a building this size with nearly 11,000 in the work place most days, it's hard to remember who you've been in close contact with.

And so, we ask them to give us the names of those they are in close contact with and then within 48 hours we're contacting those personnel and asking them if they're feeling symptomatic, are they feeling sick, do they have a fever, have they -- anybody in their family feeling sick, has the fever, showing symptoms, and then we ask them to notify their local physician and get tested.

Here in the building about a third of our workforce are military, about a third of our work force are civilian and about a third of our work force are contractors. And so, it's kind of a mixed demographic, if you will, for healthcare provision, and so we're relying a lot on local health care authorities.

And then all the numbers that are positive on the Pentagon Reservation report up to public health authorities, so Arlington County, Alexandria County, Fairfax Count, P.G. County, Montgomery County, they're aware of any outbreaks in here.

We do not by policy and by process notify folks, hey, there's somebody in this cubical that was positive. However, if you're notified by a contract tracer that says you may have been in contact with a certain person that was in the building next to you more than 15 minutes, in a meeting with you, we'll advise that person to get tested. Right now CDC guidelines does not require testing for asymptomatic, but I'll ask Dr. Payne to kind of answer.

GEN. PAYNE: No, you did a great job. You're almost an honorary medical degree there, Tom. But no, we -- we would not necessarily test everybody who has a contact.

Q: Well, for example Secretary Miller comes in contact with a Lithuanian minister who later tests positive, Secretary Miller tests negative, you have no reason to inform -- to -- to tell people including reporters that may have been near Secretary Miller, that they need to be tested.

GEN. PAYNE: I would say, you know, a test is a test only at that point in time. And that's why we also recommend quarantine or isolation for those contacts, because the disease could develop over time.

Q: No one ever tells you they're in contact with a reporter. (Laughter.)

MR. HOFFMAN: But let me say something because I think - I think what Barbara's talking about is -- is there's a chain I think Tom hit on it there, is it's contact, close contact is the CDC requirement and then there's contact and then there's contact with someone who had contact.

And so, the question you're asking is, why doesn't somebody tell you if you've been in contact with somebody who had a close contact.

Q: Right, I would like to ask that seriously --

MR. HOFFMAN: That -- and that -- and that's -- and that's -- and I think that's not the guidance, that's not the CDC guidance that the risk in that chain can tell if someone if symptomatic or has tested positive, that that chain is not there.

And I would just say, the other thing is -- is as Tom mentioned, the process we have in place, the -- I apologize, the bureaucratic process we have in place for notifying.

But, I think what you'll see and people see in the building, that there's a -- the just general relationships that people in the building of, if somebody tests positives, of reaching out to their co-workers and letting them know, reaching out to people that they have had close contact with immediately to let them know.

I've seen that in cases recently where an individual may have tested positive and -- and they make it very clear because people want to know quickly, because the best way to stop the spread is to very quickly notify people.

That's why we say if you have symptoms don't come into work, go get -- go see your doctor or your healthcare provider, the sooner the better, so that we can stop the spread. And so, that -- we see that a lot happen in the building, because we have a responsible work force that understands the implications of having a number of tests here.

So, I'm just going to close up with a couple final remarks and then we'll -- we'll let you guys out of this room.

So, I just want to share with you, as I've mentioned, we'll be back with some additional briefings on transition and on vaccinations in the coming weeks as more information becomes available, and I'm sure Tom will be with us for that, and we'll have the appropriate people from DHA to come in and talk about the vaccination plan.

So, we've seen a lot stories about the fact that with Thanksgiving, people aren't able to travel, people aren't able to be with families. And just a note of perspective for viewers and readers, the -- and for those who were discouraged by not being able to travel this holiday due to COVID-19, I'd just ask you to remember that there are millions of military members who over the last two decades have missed many holidays in the service of the country, deployed across the globe in defense of the nation. This is not an ideal situation, but we're optimistic that with the progress of Warp Speed the light is at the end of the tunnel.

In closing I want to reiterate why we're here and that's to talk about -- talk to our DOD personnel and our service members at home and abroad and encourage them to follow the CDC COVID-19 mitigation guidelines over these holidays.

Take proper precautions with regard to necessary quarantines, wash your hands regularly, maintain social distancing, limit the size of gatherings, wear a mask and if necessary, choose not to travel. And also, please make sure you observe local regulations.

Finally, I just want everybody to remember that social distancing and hand washing are excellent excuses to get out of uncomfortable family conversations about politics at Thanksgiving. So, just recommend everybody use those excuses often throughout the -- throughout the holiday season, and I hope everybody has a good Thanksgiving. Thank you.

Q: Thanks, Jon.