Anyone who has been previously hospitalized with COVID-19 will be medically disqualified from joining the military, according to interim guidance issued by the Pentagon this week. The Department of Defense laid out the recommendations in an internal memo updated Wednesday, after a previous, more strictly worded document began circulating publicly.
That stricter guidance would have permanently disqualified anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 from joining the military.
According to a Pentagon spokesperson, after the update, the restrictions pertain only to potential U.S. military recruits who were hospitalized with the respiratory disease. Those who have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 but have avoided serious complications remain eligible, while those who did find themselves in a hospital can satisfy the rule by obtaining a service waiver — similar to the process established for other conditions that could medically disqualify a recruit, such as asthma or a recent case of pneumonia.
The Department of Defense confirmed the changes to NPR on Thursday, after the previous version of the memo surfaced on social media. The document, an internal message issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, or USMEPCOM, advised its readers to label any reported history of COVID-19 as “Considered Disqualifying.”
“During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying,” officials stated in the earlier version of the document, which the Pentagon confirmed as authentic.
The revised guidance takes a softer line, suggesting that it is not the infection specifically that military officials are concerned about, but the possibility of lingering health complications for recovered patients. The message comes as the White House has urged the reopening of states across the country and has celebrated those who have recovered from COVID-19.
The World Health Organization has warned that there is no reliable evidence yet to know for sure that recovered COVID-19 patients are safe from a second infection.
The interim guidance does not represent the first time the U.S. military has confronted questions about its coronavirus response. Controversy has swirled around the outbreak on a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The U.S. Navy continues to review how and why the vessel’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, was relieved of his command after his request for help leaked to the media.
Thomas Modly resigned as acting secretary of the Navy last month amid a hailstorm of criticism, just four months after Trump had installed Modly in the role.
NPR’s Tom Bowman contributed to this report.