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NATO pauses Afghanistan troop rotations as DoD ramps up COVID-19 response

NATO officials announced Thursday that troop rotations in Afghanistan have been put on hold over coronavirus concernst. Photo courtesy Department of Defense
NATO officials announced Thursday that troop rotations in Afghanistan have been put on hold over coronavirus concernst. Photo courtesy Department of Defense

March 19 (UPI) -- As U.S. defense forces have announced their plans to ramp up assistance amid the global spread of the novel coronavirus, NATO officials announced Thursday that American and allied troops already deployed in Afghanistan could have their deployments extended due to concerns about the virus.

They'll be staying in the country as 1,500 newly arrived troops and families have been quarantined in screening facilities, according to NATO Resolute Support.

Resolute Support is also establishing screenings to test troops before they are sent to Afghanistan. Officials will do more training of Afghan troops online to help prevent spread of the virus.

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Concern about the novel coronavirus' spread in Afghanistan, where 22 positive cases have been recorded, created a hiccup in the plan to reduce the number of troops stationed there from 13,000 to 8,600 by July.

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Officials say the pause in rotations is intended to ensure personnel coming into Afghanistan are healthy and that troops leaving don't infect others in their home countries.

The announcement came on the same day the U.S. State Department warned U.S. citizens not to travel internationally, and urged Americans abroad to come home immediately.

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The Department of Defense announced restrictions on travel for service members and their families March 12, including tight restrictions on domestic travel.

Also on Thursday, Pentagon officials announced that about 2,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen have been activated to support coronavirus relief efforts -- and that the number could double by this weekend.

According to Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, National Guard soldiers are assisting with food distribution, testing, delivery of medical equipment and setting up drive-through testing stations in locations around the United States.

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Earlier this week the Department of Defense announced it would make available up to 5 million respirator masks and other personal protective equipment -- and 2,000 deployable ventilators -- from its strategic reserves.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also said the Defense Department would make 14 certified testing labs available to test non-defense personnel, and add two labs to that total.

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