Cluster of COVID-19 Cases in US Troops Emerges at Kuwaiti Air Base

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Airmen and Marines prepare food at the Sandstorm field kitchen, Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait.
FILE PHOTO - U.S. Airmen and Marine Corp volunteers prepare food at the Sandstorm field kitchen, Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, April 17, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Isaiah J. Soliz)

A Middle East air base where U.S. troops operate alongside Kuwaiti counterparts is experiencing a new cluster of COVID-19 cases, Military.com has learned.

While the exact number is unknown, around 30 U.S. personnel have come down with the novel coronavirus in recent weeks at Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, according to a defense official.

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The base primarily houses airmen, with U.S. Air Forces Central Command's 332d Air Expeditionary Wing and subsidiary units operating from the base. Forces from the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing at nearby Ali Al Salem Air Base also routinely rotate through the base for exercises and other missions, according to the Air Force.

"While we will not release specific COVID-19 numbers, we can confirm that there is a cluster of cases currently on [al-Jaber], an air base in Kuwait that houses a number of U.S. Central Command personnel," a CENTCOM official said in a statement. "This cluster developed over time, and we believe social distancing and contact tracing measures has limited the size of that cluster."

The command said the COVID-19 cases have not impacted day-to-day operations at the base; troops are being urged to adhere to Centers for Disease Control guidelines, such as frequent hand-washing, social distancing, and wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, CENTCOM said.

"Our top priority, first and foremost, is the health and welfare of our personnel," the command said. "Any individual who shows possible COVID-19 symptoms or who tests positive for the virus immediately receives the best possible medical care, and that care continues for as long as necessary."

In late February. U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East were temporarily banned from any travel, including leave or liberty travel to nearby countries, to prevent further transmission of the virus. The Pentagon then implemented a global stop-movement order that took effect March 13.

Military deployments and redeployments, largely halted by the stop-move order, resumed on a case-by-case basis in mid-April. The travel ban is in effect through June 30.

The 407th Expeditionary Support Squadron in April constructed an outdoor dining facility at al-Jaber, known as "the Sandstorm Field Kitchen," to better space out personnel within dining areas.

"This was needed because of the influx that we get of people coming in from different units, different areas," Tech. Sgt. Leslie Torres, dining facility manager, said in a video accompanying a news release.

"This facility helps out and allows some of the base population to come here instead of all going to the main dining facility," Torres said.

Per the latest official tally, COVID cases continue to rise in the military.

As of June 29, officials said there have now been 17,116 total cases of COVID-19 within the DoD: 11,770 military, 1,666 dependents, 2,551 civilians and 1,129 Defense Department contractors.

In addition, 5,928 military members, 885 dependents, 1,208 civilians and 515 contractors have recovered, and 38 DoD-connected personnel have died: three troops, five dependents, 21 civilians and nine contractors.

Of the cases, 623 have required hospitalization, officials said: 290 service members, 183 civilians, 67 dependents and 83 contractors.

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: The Military's Coronavirus Cases: The Latest Rundown

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