BANGKOK — The Thai army said Wednesday it will refrain from sending troops to further overseas joint exercises after nine troops were found with the coronavirus upon returning from one such exercise in Hawaii.
Commander Gen. Natapon Srisawad said at a news conference that the army made the decision to prevent other infections among its ranks. Military flights to and from Thailand are among the few international travels exempted under the current regulations.
“After our soldiers came back infected we have to admit the fact that prevention isn’t perfect yet,” Gen. Natapon said. “It’s a safety lesson for us.”
The same troops who went to Hawaii, part of the 21st Infantry Regiment and the 14th Military Circle, are scheduled to embark on another exercise from September to October at the Joint Readiness Training center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
“We’re leaning towards not going,” Natapon said, adding that the army had “halted all but the most necessary exercises” since the pandemic broke out.
The infected soldiers were among 151 troops who participated in the Lightning Forge 2020 exercise with the U.S. army at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii from July 1 to 21.
Thai army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong said the munitions used during the Hawaii exercise have been sanitized and returned to the armory. The soldiers are currently in quarantine in Pattaya. Another group swab test is scheduled for Aug. 2.
Natapon added that the Thai army soldiers on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan will increase safety measures against COVID-19.
When reached for comment, army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said that it was his day off and that the army had already spoken via Natapon.
Thira Woratanarat, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Chulalongkorn University, also posted on Facebook advising against sending troops to future exercises overseas amid the ongoing pandemic.
“Soldiers are at risk from training and lodging together in close quarters, and even drink from the same cup as infected soldiers,” Thira wrote Wednesday. “We should postpone trips to places where the epidemic is widespread.”
He said that since nine were infected out of 151, that put this group’s infection rate at 6 percent – or 12 times that of the rate of local transmission in Thailand.