For Recruits, COVID-19 Is Just Another Preexisting Condition

The military will accept COVID-19 survivors as recruits and new officers, contrary to reports that suggested the Defense Department planned to disqualify anyone with a history of COVID-19. But individuals who are hospitalized in connection with the new coronavirus will need a waiver to enter service, a DOD official told Air Force Magazine.

That marks a policy reversal from the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command. A MEPCOM memo first reported by Military Times would have barred those with a positive laboratory test for the new coronavirus or diagnosed with COVID-19 from joining the military. 

That policy has since been revised, with the ban limited to those who had been hospitalized, and waivers possible with further medical checks. Saying the memo was only intended as interim guidance, an official said DOD policy classifies numerous preexisting health conditions as disqualifying, many of which do not allow for waivers. By making COVID-19 waiverable, the department is essentially treating it the same as other illnesses, such as infectious pneumonia.

According to Defense Department Instruction 6130.03, other respiratory ailments that can render applicants ineligible to serve include bouts with infectious pneumonia or pleurisy (an inflammation of the lining of the lungs) within the prior three months; a history of asthma or asthmatic bronchitis after age 13, and a history of blood clots in the lungs. 

Also disqualifying, the instruction says: “Any abnormal findings on imaging or other examination of body structure, such as the lungs, diaphragm, or other thoracic or abdominal organs, unless the findings have been evaluated and further surveillance or treatment is not required.” 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, COVID-19 causes acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, which causes patients’ lungs to appear “white and opaque” rather than black on chest X-rays, an effect some doctors call “whiteout.”

Video: Dr. Sanjay Mukhopadhyay on YouTube

Still, individuals of enlistment age are typically younger and fitter than the population as a whole, and less likely to suffer the worst effects of COVID-19. According to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of hospitalization for younger Americans is far lower than for those in their 50s and older.

Still unclear is what the change in policy could mean to the 113 total military members who’ve been hospitalized due to complications caused by the virus. Their future service could be in doubt if the virus leaves lasting damage.

While the DOD official told Air Force Magazine that the MEPCOM guidance does not apply to those already serving, the Air Force referred questions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who did not respond to questions before this article was published.