The Canadian military training mission in Ukraine has been temporarily suspended after a major outbreak of coronavirus among the troops, the Department of National Defence confirmed late Friday.
A spokesperson for the military’s joint operational command refused to disclose how many soldiers have tested positive.
“Normal security forces capacity building activities have been temporarily reduced or suspended in training locations as a force protection measure for members of the Task Force and in order to stop the spread of the virus,” said Capt. Alexia Croizer, who speaks for the Ottawa-based Canadian Joint Operations Command.
“Members who tested positive are being monitored in isolation and close contacts have been placed in quarantine.”
The Globe and Mail was the first to report on the outbreak and noted the spread of the virus prevented a recent change-of-command ceremony between outgoing and incoming commanders.
There are about 200 Canadian troops assigned to the training mission. They are scattered at various locations in central and western Ukraine, with the bulk of the contingent headquartered at Yavoriv near the Polish border.
While the defence department will not say how many Canadian troops in Ukraine have been hit by COVID-19, it does acknowledge that there are 86 active cases across the entire Armed Forces.
That number was current as of April 12. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 1,396 cases of coronavirus reported among Canadian military members.
Ukraine is experiencing a surge in COVID infections. On Thursday, 16,553 new cases were reported in the eastern European country.
The deteriorating pandemic situation in the country comes at a time of heightened tension with Russia, which has stationed as many as 110,000 troops along Ukrainian border under the guise of military exercises.
Earlier this year, Canadian soldiers serving as part of the NATO deterrence mission in Latvia experienced an outbreak of COVID-19. In that case, the defence department also refused to say how many soldiers had been infected.
Military moves to vaccinate overseas troops
The latest cases in Ukraine have put the spotlight on the Canadian military’s plan to vaccinate troops and the priority given to members deployed overseas.
The defence department will be allocated enough vaccine for 115,000 members. Troops deployed overseas are lower on the priority list.
The first shots will be going to “members working or preparing to work in higher risk clinical settings to assist provinces and territories to protect vulnerable Canadians, such as Long Term Care Facilities or those who have health conditions that place them at increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection,” said department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande.
“While not all members deployed or posted overseas have received their vaccine yet, efforts are well underway to ensure we have a coordinated and resourced plan in place, to reach each and every deployed and posted member.”
Members of the military deployed overseas can only receive Health Canada-approved vaccines.
Lamirande said that, in some cases, the defence department “has coordinated with, and authorized, some Host Nation and coalition medical authorities to vaccinate CAF members with Health Canada-approved vaccines from their own national allocations.”
She did not identify the countries, nor did she indicate how many shots may have been administered to Canadian personnel.
How quickly the military can get all overseas troops vaccinated is not clear.
“Numbers and timelines are fluid at the moment as it will depend largely on the vaccine availability in other countries, as well as progress made on the vaccination programs both in Canada and in host nations,” said Lamirande.