US military dependent in South Korea diagnosed with coronavirus, triggering precautions

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ABC News reports that a family member of a U.S. service member has been diagnosed with coronavirus in South Korea, as the number of cases in that country continues to explode and the U.S. military considers scaling back its exercises with South Korean forces due to the virus.

In a news release on Monday, U.S. Forces Korea announced that it had been informed by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a military dependent living in Daegu had tested positive for the coronavirus. It marks the first time a U.S. Forces Korea-related individual tested positive for the virus, the release said.

In a tweet on Monday, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea Gen. Robert Abrams identified the 61-year old female patient as the widow of a retired soldier.

“We are saddened to hear of her contracting the virus,” Abrams tweeted. “We pray for her recovery.”

According to the release, the woman visited the Camp Walker Post Exchange on Feb. 12 and 15. Korean and American military health professionals are now “actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed.”

In response, U.S. Forces Korea has ordered personnel to limit non-mission essential in-person meetings, gatherings, and temporary duty travel and assignments. It’s also warned personnel to “expect longer wait times, possible temperature checks and screening questionnaires at gates to access installations” and instructed personnel to limit off-installation travel. The overall risk of COVID-19 to U.S. military personnel on the Korean Peninsula is now characterized as “high.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Monday that the U.S. may scale back military exercises with South Korean forces due to the spread of the virus.

At a Pentagon news conference with the South Korean defense minister, Esper said that military commanders “are looking at scaling back the command post training due to concerns about the coronavirus,” though no decision has been made.

Over the weekend, the U.S. State Department raised the travel advisory level for South Korea and Japan to level 2, citing the COVID-19 outbreak. The alerts say that “sustained community spread has been reported in South Korea,” meaning people in both countries “have been infected with the virus, but how or where they became infected is not known, and the spread is ongoing.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued its highest travel warning for South Korea on Monday, telling Americans to avoid non-essential travel and citing limited access to medical care in areas affected by the virus.

As of Tuesday, more than 975 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in South Korea, many in the southeastern city of Daegu where the soldier’s widow contracted the virus. The nation has also seen 11 COVID-19 related deaths.

(ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Conor Finnegan, and Christine Theodorou contributed to this report.)