Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The U.S. military is considering scaling back international exercises and extending closure of overseas facilities as coronavirus spreads across the globe, officials said this week.
On Tuesday, U.S. European Command's top officer, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters told lawmakers the military may keep facilities in Italy closed past their intended re-open date, and is preparing a response should the virus gain traction in Germany.
And on Monday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters some joint exercises with South Korea could be scaled back due to concern about the virus.
The Army has closed on-base schools, child care centers, gyms and churches in Italy due to a spike in coronavirus cases in Italy -- and there is a "50-50" possibility facilities could stay closed past their intended closing date of March 1, Wolters said.
There have been nearly 300 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Italy so far.
In response to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asking whether U.S. troops in Italy and their families are "mostly just sitting at home right now trying to avoid the coronavirus," Wolters said a "fair amount" are staying put.
Wolters was in Washington to address the Senate Armed Services Committee on Europe Command's piece of the Department of Defense's 2021 budget request and the command's role in countering Russia and China, but conversation also drifted toward COVID-19, which has caused surge of cases has forced base access and troop movement restrictions.
Wolton said the military is expecting an increase in the number of cases in Germany, and is also prepared to execute a coronavirus prevention plan in the country, where tens of thousands of U.S. service members and their families live.
The United States has 6,000 to 7,000 troops plus thousands of troops' family members in Vicenza, Italy.
Military officials are also cautiously eyeing South Korea, where nearly 600 people have tested positive for the illness.
During a joint briefing with Esper on Monday, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo confirmed joint exercises in the region may need to be "curtailed."
On-base schools in Korea are also closed as of Monday, and expected to remain so through Feb. 28.
U.S. Forces Korea raised the risk level for the command from moderate to high after reports that the widow of a retired soldier living in Daegu had contracted the virus, marking the first case of someone with ties to USFK contracting the virus.
Earlier in February, U.S. Northern Command said in service-wide messages that it is executing plans to prepare for a potential pandemic of the virus.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Hatfield said the planning does not indicate "greater likelihood" of a pandemic happening.
"We coordinate with other combatant commands to assess potential impacts in the event of a pandemic and we ensure the U.S. military is poised to respond as required," Hatfield said in a statement. "The military profession fosters a culture of planning, and the fact that we are coordinating planning efforts across the geographical combatant commands is consistent with how we prepare to respond, if directed."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday said Americans should be preparing for a pandemic as experts have now seen community spread of the virus in multiple countries and cases being reported in locations without a previously known exposure.
Numbers released Tuesday afternoon by the World Health Organization Tuesday say 80,239 cases of the newest strain of coronavirus have been confirmed globally. The vast majority of positive tests -- 77, 780 -- have been in China. The majority of deaths due to the virus -- 2,666 -- have also occurred in China, with 34 coronavirus deaths taking place among residents of other countries.