Army Warned in Early February That Coronavirus Could Kill 150,000 Americans

James LaPorta, Spencer Ackerman
Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

This week, as coronavirus deaths in the U.S. spiraled up to surpass those killed on 9/11, the White House is conceding that an optimistic assessment of the coming death toll will leave between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans dead. But if the White House had heeded an Army warning nearly two months ago, it might have prompted earlier action to prevent an outbreak that threatens to kill more Americans than two to four Vietnam Wars.

An unclassified briefing document on the novel coronavirus prepared on Feb. 3 by U.S. Army-North projected that “between 80,000 and 150,000 could die.” It framed the projection as a “Black Swan” analysis, meaning an outlier event of extreme consequence but often understood as an unlikely one.

In other words, the Army’s projections on Feb. 3 for the worst-case scenario in the coronavirus outbreak are, as of this week, the absolute best-case scenario—if not a miraculous one.

A month after the Army’s briefing, on March 4, President Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity that the World Health Organization’s coronavirus death estimate of 3.4 percent of cases was a “false number,” since it contradicted a “hunch” he had. “It’s not that severe,” the president said.

The document made it to high levels within U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the military command responsible for operations in North America and which aided civilian agencies’ early responses to evacuating and quarantining Americans abroad.

The document came two days after Defense Secretary Mark Esper instructed NORTHCOM to begin “prudent planning” for synchronizing a military response to a domestic COVID-19 outbreak. (That planning didn’t “indicate a greater likelihood of an event developing,” a NORTHCOM spokesman assured at the time.) Feb. 3 was also four days after Trump banned non-citizens recently in China from entering the United States.

The Daily Beast can confirm the document was seen by NORTHCOM commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, as well as the Army-North commander, Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, whose forces are the main contributor to NORTHCOM. It also made its way to the Department of the Army’s Pentagon headquarters, where Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy received it.

But it’s unknown how widely distributed the Army’s death estimate was. Representatives for Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions. Neither did representatives for the National Security Council and the White House. The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined comment.

O’Shaughnessy, during a Wednesday press briefing, would not discuss the assessment but said it reflected “worst-case” planning.

“As you would expect, we do a lot of military planning, we do prudent planning for operations and clearly I’m not going to talk about operational-level details nor would I talk about an actual operational plan or planning document,” O’Shaughnessy said when The Daily Beast questioned him.

“The reality of it is is that you want us planning for the worst-case scenarios, you want us planning for the what ifs—us thinking ahead into all those things that might and could possibly happen and that’s what we’ve been doing, not only on this particular effort but on a myriad of different threats we face to the homeland.”

Richardson, the U.S. Army-North commanding general, agreed, adding, “We want to think of what could possibly be the worst-case scenario because we don’t want to be surprised when we get into the environment and we have to operate in it.”

The death estimate wasn’t the only part of the Feb. 3 briefing that proved prescient.

The black swan estimate correctly stated that asymptomatic people can “easily” transmit the virus—a finding it presented as outside the contemporary medical consensus. Military forces might be tasked with providing logistics and medical support to overwhelmed civilians, the document warned. One potential task envisioned was “provid[ing] PPE (N-95 Face Mask, Eye Protection, and Gloves) to evacuees, staff, and DoD personnel.”

The estimate also assumed that the military infections would occur “at the same rate as the population.” As of March 31, the rate of troop infection outpaced that of civilians, according to Military Times.

Another assumption appeared too optimistic. A “most likely” scenario held that “HHS and CDC, state, and local Public Health departments successfully contact traced all U.S. & Canada nCOV [novel coronavirus] cases and contain the spread of the outbreak.” Fatefully, they did not, and now the U.S. is one of the epicenters of the virus.

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Trump had received briefings in January from U.S. intelligence agencies and Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, that warned COVID-19 would be a top-tier threat, according to The Washington Post. Similarly, the Senate Health Committee received one on Jan. 24, a little over a week before the Army assessment. While it’s unknown if the committee was provided any death estimates, the briefing occurred shortly before a senator on the committee, Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), sold off stocks ahead of market crashes.

Before and after the Army warned of the coming morbidity wave, Trump insisted publicly that the novel coronavirus was no big deal and his response was adequate. The day before the Army assessment, Trump boasted, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” By Feb. 24, with still no substantial testing or contact-tracing occurring, Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”

At a news conference two days later, Trump assured that 15 known cases of coronavirus inside the U.S. “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

Similarly, the military’s response did not reflect the urgency of the Feb. 3 Army document.

In late January, five days before the Army assessment, the Pentagon agreed to quarantine Americans evacuated from China and elsewhere on military bases until Feb. 15. On Feb. 3, the same day as the briefing, Esper approved an additional request for assistance from HHS that extended the housing of quarantined individuals until Feb. 29. Late that month, as the new coronavirus spread across Italy, U.S. servicemembers at the Vicenza base used by the Army hunkered down. “We meet daily, my team,” on coronavirus, Esper told a congressional hearing on Feb. 26. But he said he did not know if he would need additional funding to respond to the virus.

Indeed, the Pentagon’s major responses to coronavirus—limitations on military and dependent travel overseas, 14-day quarantines for troops returning from overseas, the provisions of military hospital ships and the Army Corps of Engineers to bolster civilian hospitals—began only in March. It wasn’t until the first week in March that the military received tests for COVID-19.

Throughout the epidemic, Esper and other senior Pentagon leaders have emphasized maintaining readiness for unrelated military operations. In late February, after U.S. ally South Korea’s military was so wracked with coronavirus it prompted canceling a major exercise, Esper assured, “I'm sure that we will remain fully ready to deal with any threats that we might face together.” Milley said on March 2 that the impact on the military was “very minimal” and he and Esper were relying on commanders to “make good judgments” about abridging training or other military commitments.

His prioritization of readiness on par with aiding the response to coronavirus was called into question Monday by the commander of the COVID-19-wracked aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated that the ship cease operations and offload its crew in Guam to combat the outbreak. The Navy’s civilian and military leadership said Wednesday that it’s now having “discussions” about keeping ships in port to prevent the next on-ship outbreak.

The Army briefing on Feb. 3 also assessed that up to 80 million would be infected, with 15 to 25 million requiring care as somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 individuals may require hospitalization.

Currently, more than 173,000 people across the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to The New York Times, though testing remains minimal. A model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects a need for 260,000 hospital beds by a mid-April peak.

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