(CN) — The U.S. military moved 11,000 troops to Guam for training this week, as Governor Lou Leon Guerrero extended the island’s second Covid-19 stay-at-home order.
“The single best tool we have against Covid-19 spread is the limitation of personal interactions between individuals,” Leon Guerrero wrote in her Thursday order extending quarantine through Sept. 25.
To date, 2,074 people have tested positive for Covid-19 on the U.S. territory of Guam, more than 1% of the Pacific island’s population. According to the health department, military personnel made up about 12% of the island’s cases.
While essential businesses continue to operate, islanders are ordered to stay home unless engaging in approved activities like obtaining food, commuting for work, or obtaining medical care.
Meanwhile the 11,000 service members participating in Valiant Shield exercises between the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps temporarily increases the island’s population by 6% and doubles the military presence.
In a release, Navy Rear Adm. Michael Boyle explained, “exercises such as Valiant Shield allow U.S. forces the opportunity to integrate warfighting concepts such as all-domain strike group operations in a joint high end warfare training environment to continuously improve joint lethality.”
Prior to entering the island, service members quarantined for 14 days or were required to present a negative test if traveling by commercial airplane. While the military declined to confirm how many service members are staying off base, the Guam Visitors Bureau anticipated housing up to 1,000 in local hotels.
Some locals believe quarantine protocols are unevenly applied between military and civilians.
“What we see happening is that the military and the civilian community have different sets of rules for what to do in the pandemic,” observed Michael Lujan Bevacqua, a Chamorro scholar and activist. “As the civilian population hunkered down, if you were driving around to go get groceries, you would see military groups that came off the base at the beaches. They were hiking. They were hanging out around the island because they didn’t have the same restrictions.”
“In some ways, it absolutely reminds us about why we need to change our political status, why we shouldn’t stay a territory,” said Bevacqua, a longtime advocate for allowing the indigenous Chamorros to determine the island’s political relationship with the United States.
Others worry that inevitable interactions between military and locals contributes to Covid-19 spread.
“Many military members do stay off base and they interact in the community,” said Kalani Reyes, a local college student. “In my opinion, I would say that the military does play a role in stopping the spread, they play as much of a role as everyone else and we want to make sure that everyone is doing their part.”
Five-hundred ninety-three patients remain in active quarantine. Twenty-two of the island’s 31 deaths occurred in September. On average, 36 people tested positive for the disease each day over the last week.
Additionally, reports of military Covid-19 outbreaks continue to reach Guam’s shores. In April, 1,100 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for the disease while docked in Guam.
Between May and June, 35 service members quarantined in a Tumon hotel tested positive for Covid-19 after dining at 30 restaurants. On Sept. 16, a news release disclosed that a Naval Base Visitor Control Center worker tested positive for the disease.
Still, the military contends that the governor of Guam’s orders apply to everyone on the island, with additional precautions in place for the 11,000 participants of Valiant Shield.
“In coordination with military medical personnel and public health personnel, every aspect of Valiant Shield 2020 has been analyzed to ensure the appropriate mitigation measures are taken against Covid-19,” said a spokesperson for the Valiant Shield 2020 Joint Information Bureau.
“Our focus is to protect our service members and their families, prevent the spread of the virus to U.S. forces, local residents, allies, or partners, and ensure our warfighting readiness to accomplish assigned missions.”
The majority of service members are at sea or restricted to base, the agency added, reducing the risks of contact.
“Given our experiences with the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, we are confident that if the agreed upon protocols are followed, the Department of Defense and the Government of Guam can partner to do this safely,” said Krystal Paco-San Agustin, press secretary for the governor of Guam.
On Sept. 12, the Pacific Vanguard exercise brought 1,500 additional service members from the U.S., Japan, Korea, and Australia to the waters off Guam for training following the Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii.
“It is truly invaluable that the navies of four countries get together again in Guam to participate in Pacific Vanguard under the difficult time we all face with Covid-19,” said Japan Maritime Self Defense Force vice admiral Yuasa Hideki, in a statement. “I strongly believe that our enhanced cooperation will certainly contribute to peace and stability in the Western Pacific.”
Guam Memorial Hospital received 22 intensive care nurses, respiratory technicians and physicians from the Department of Defense to help the treat Covid-19. Nevertheless, the governor said with 44 Covid-19 patients, including 19 in intensive care, the island’s hospitals are operating beyond capacity.
If needed, the Valiant Shield 2020 Joint Information Bureau said the military is ready to assemble a Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility, as well as an Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support System on Guam, with an estimated 75-hospital beds between them.