Responding to COVID-19 Among U.S. Military Units in South Korea: The U.S. Forces Korea's Operation Kill the Virus

Sharon Y. Kim, Kenny Lee, Jason B. Tussey, Eric J. Dougherty, Stephen C. Williams, Robert B. Abrams, Clinton K. Murray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Introduction: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a viral respiratory illness caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and has led to one of the world's largest infectious disease outbreaks. COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, and the emergence was especially concerning to the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) stationed in the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), which remains vital to peace and security of the East Asian region. The first wave of cases emerged in South Korea from China before a globally established response, which forced USFK into a challenging position to combat a novel virus with countless unknowns regarding effective control and portended impact. Materials and Methods: As cases began to emerge in South Korea, USFK in early February began to proactively formulate peninsula-wide preventative health measures to protect the force. Eventually, USFK spearheaded a uniquely proactive Operation Kill the Virus that targeted COVID-19 as an enemy that must be rigorously defended against. Through the operation, USFK systematically employed eight key principles to successfully combat the pandemic, which are documented in this article. Results: The operation's eight principles focused on (1) Treat it like a combat operation, (2) Protect the force to protect the mission, (3) Stay one step ahead of the curve by exercising an abundance of caution, (4) Use predictive analysis, (5) Maintain open and transparent dialog with the community every day, (6) Be empathetic but prepare the community for lifestyle and culture changes, (7) Follow and enforce rules, and finally (8) Keep your foot on the gas and fight complacency. By closely collaborating with the ROK government, especially the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USFK effectively limited the number of locally acquired cases, including service members, families, and civilians, to 24 by April 2020. Vital to that success was ensuring a sufficient capability and capacity to test, trace, treat, and logistically support with personal protective equipment and sufficient infrastructure for quarantine and isolation. As the pandemic shifted to the USA and Europe, new cases in the ROK shifted from locally acquired to imported from international travelers. Fundamental to USFK's sustained preservation of readiness and training included aggressive quarantine and testing of all arrivals from the United States of America (USA), identification of hotspots in all installations, and perpetual fine-tuning of the operation's principles in collaboration with the ROK's aggressive approach to eradicate COVID-19 from the peninsula. Conclusions: In successfully executing the operation, USFK imparts three main lessons for future outbreaks. First, a military command should execute a health response similar to how it executes combat operations against a battlefield enemy. Second, the command should maintain flexibility to new changes or risks that alter courses of action. And finally, engagement with the local community, host nation, and international partners should not be compromised when formulating strategies. The USFK's immediate recognition of the public health threat by all levels of leadership and medical personnel enabled a unique and highly effective Operation Kill the Virus that engaged all members of the community, both local and international.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E138-E146
JournalMilitary Medicine
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes


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