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SC military bases will stop publicly announcing coronavirus cases following Pentagon order

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SECONDARY OPTION Drill SGT Fort Jackson_15.jpg

The message on the wall of the Drill Sergeant Academy dorm building on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

South Carolina military bases will stop publicly reporting the number of positive cases of the coronavirus at their installations because of an order from the Pentagon. 

The nationwide order was announced by the Department of Defense shortly after Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Army Basic Training Command at Fort Jackson reported a drastic increase of positive tests. 

Fort Jackson reported at least 25 positive tests and Parris Island had anywhere from 20 to 50 cases on Monday. 

"As we confront this growing crisis, and out of a concern for operational security with regard to readiness, we will not report the aggregate number of individual service member cases at individual unit, base or Combatant Commands," Defense Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said in a statement Monday night. 

Parris Island and Fort Jackson see upwards of 60,000 new recruits from all over the country each year, making them hot spots for exposure to COVID-19.

The Marine Corps said Monday it would no longer ship recruits to the South Carolina base during the pandemic. The Army has not made plans to stop shipping soldiers to Fort Jackson, the branch's largest training base.

South Carolina has a massive military presence. The five major bases in the state are, often, seamlessly interwoven with the community and are a source of economic stability for surrounding real estate, restaurants, businesses and services. 

As the coronavirus started spreading through the Palmetto State, military bases began releasing public statements and updates on the growing number of positive tests among the ranks and military community.

But under the Pentagon's new orders, the number of growing cases on the base will only be known by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, as well as the military branch associated with the installation and the Pentagon.

It's not clear if DHEC would include those numbers in its statewide or county tallies. During a press conference on Tuesday, Dr. Linda Bell, DHEC’s epidemiologist, did not know how the base numbers were reported to the state agency or tallied.

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Longtime neighbors of the military bases will be left in the dark. 

Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said the Pentagon's directive delays the spread of accurate information to the community. 

"It's a move that slows down the public from being able to protect themselves," Rogers said. 

Billy Keyserling, the mayor of Beaufort, said the Pentagon's decision to order bases, like Parris Island and the Marine Corps Air Station in his city, to not release information was "so wrong." But he did understand issues of privacy the Department of Defense operates under. 

State Rep. Kirkland Findlay III, R-Columbia, knows that Fort Jackson has a close relationship with the capitol city. While he said the Pentagon's directive is not ideal, he understand it isn't smart for a military base to publicly show how weak it is to potential enemies. 

"I get it," Findlay said. "It probably is overkill, but I understand the reasoning behind it. My guess is that Fort Jackson is doing a pretty good job. ... I don't imagine they are trying to hide anything."

Sgt. Jonathan Lovelady, a spokesman for Joint Base Charleston, said numbers on base will be reported to the Air Force. Other bases in the state will report to their respective branches. Additionally, bases have been ordered to share their data with state and local health agencies. 

"Base commanders are instructed to continue to work with local community health officials to share information on base community cases," Farah said. 

As of Monday morning, 569 active-duty service members have contracted the illness, as had 220 civilian personnel, 190 family members and 64 contractors, according to the Pentagon. 

COVID-19 claimed the life of the first U.S. service member on Monday, a National Guard soldier in New Jersey. 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

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