Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has tested positive for COVID-19. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has tested positive for COVID-19, the Pentagon announced Sunday evening.

Austin is experiencing “mild” symptoms and will be quarantined at home for five days, according to a statement released by the department. Austin is now the highest profile member of the Biden administration to contract the virus, which has spiked around the country in recent weeks, thanks to the Omicron variant. (At least anecdotally, cases at the Pentagon itself seem to be matching that spike, though the Pentagon’s statement didn’t say which version of the virus infected Austin.)

In his comments, the Pentagon leader sought to downplay any potential impact on department operations.

“Stemming the spread of this virus, safeguarding our workforce and ensuring my own speedy and safe recovery remain my priorities. To the degree possible, I plan to attend virtually this coming week those key meetings and discussions required to inform my situational awareness and decision making. I will retain all authorities. Deputy Secretary Hicks will represent me as appropriate in other matters,” Austin said in the statement.

“I have informed my leadership team of my positive test result, as well as the President,” Austin said, noting that his last meeting with President Joe Biden was on Dec. 21, well before he began having symptoms. “My staff has begun contact tracing and testing of all those with whom I have come into contact over the last week.”

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His positive test comes as the military services, under Austin’s directive, are beginning the process of separating servicemembers who have refused to be vaccinated. As a result, his infection is likely to be seized upon by anti-vaccination activists within the military community who claim, falsely, that vaccinations are not effective against the disease. It’s something Austin seemed aware in his commentary.

“As my doctor made clear to me, my fully vaccinated status — and the booster I received in early October — have rendered the infection much more mild than it would otherwise have been. And I am grateful for that,” Austin said. “The vaccines work and will remain a military medical requirement for our workforce. I continue to encourage everyone eligible for a booster shot to get one. This remains a readiness issue.”

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