WASHINGTON, DC -- The Pentagon has ordered military bases and commanders, including El Paso's Fort Bliss, to stop publicly announcing coronavirus case numbers, citing security concerns.
The decision came as first virus death of a U.S. service member occurred and as the total number of military-linked cases surpassed 1,000 on Monday. As of the last public report from Fort Bliss, there were seven infections involving soldiers and civilian defense department employees at the facility.
The death and surging cases are the latest signs that the virus has become a national security challenge.
“We will not report the aggregate number of individual service member cases at individual unit, base or Combatant Commands. We will continue to do our best to balance transparency in this crisis with operational security," Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement on Monday.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon identified the first service member who died from the virus as Army Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok, a guardsman from New Jersey who had been hospitalized since March 21.
"Today is a sad day for the Department of Defense as we have lost our first American service member -- active, reserve or Guard -- to Coronavirus," U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said.
"This is a stinging loss for our military community, and our condolences go out to his family, friends, civilian co-workers and the entire National Guard community. The news of this loss strengthens our resolve to work ever more closely with our interagency partners to stop the spread of COVID-19," Esper added.
Beyond the virus' spread within the armed forces, top U.S. commanders around the globe had previously expressed concerns that as allies shut down borders and travel, there's a risk that military readiness may start degrading, several defense officials told CNN.
Still, the Department of Defense stressed in a news release Monday that it has "adopted dramatic mitigation measures to protect service members, civilian employees, contractors and their families from Coronavirus."
"These include mandating social distancing, termination of certain work and training activities and providing testing and care for our community members," the release said.
Concerns about the pandemic's spread drove the U.S. Marine Corps to temporarily suspend basic training for 50% of its new enlisted recruits on Monday, and the Pentagon is increasingly preparing for the possibility of wider outbreaks across the force than originally anticipated.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Army began suspending "non-mission essential functions," including some non-critical training of units in the field and physical fitness training involving large numbers of troops, according to an internal Army directive that was obtained by CNN.
"Mitigation measures taken by the Army to blunt the spread of COVID-19 have proven insufficient," the internal order said.