Politics

Canadian Forces members in Latvia test positive for COVID-19 virus

A number of Canadian military members deployed in Latvia have tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Department of National Defence has said.

Military won't say how many were infected; Riga says the outbreak is under control

A Canadian soldier carries spent light anti-tank weapons following the conclusion of an exercise outside Riga, Latvia. (NATO)

A number of Canadian military members deployed in Latvia have tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Department of National Defence has said.

Military officials say they will not release specific numbers, citing operational security.

Defence sources say they believe only a handful Canadians attached to the mission have been infected. An unknown number of soldiers from other nations taking part in the Canadian-led battle group, however, have contracted COVID-19 at Camp Adazi outside of the capital Riga.

The Latvian government moved swiftly on Monday to reassure Canadians and other NATO allies that all soldiers are being well cared for and the outbreak is under control.

Latvia's ambassador to Canada said his country already had health infrastructure in place at the camp before the first cases were reported and his government remains confident the situation is being managed well.

"As a host nation, we have a very important and responsible task to take good care of all allies who are serving on our soil," said Karlis Eihenbaums in an interview.

We've taken precautions, says ambassador

Several weeks ago, the Baltic nation established a rapid testing centre and a standard laboratory testing facility at the camp. Masking and social distancing protocols are in place at the camp and have proven effective, Eihenbaums added.

He said Latvian authorities were prepared for the pandemic's second wave.

"With this type of virus it was expected and we took preventative measures, already, some time ago," Eihenbaums said. 

There are 540 Canadian soldiers in Latvia — part of a 1,500-member multinational battle group set up by NATO three years ago as a check against Russian aggression in the wake of the annexation of Crimea.

The U.S., Britain and Germany have established similar formations in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, respectively.

Last spring, the Canadian-led NATO battle group in Latvia was the target of a pandemic-related disinformation campaign that alliance commanders said they believed originated in Russia.

Reports circulated recently in some Baltic and Eastern European media outlets suggesting the contingent at Camp Adazi in Kadaga, outside Riga, had "a high number" of cases of the deadly virus. The task force commander at the time, Col. Eric Laforest, vigorously denied the reports.

In a statement over the weekend, following renewed questions from CBC News, the defence department acknowledged there had been a recent outbreak.

"The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have some members deployed on Operation REASSURANCE in Latvia [who] have tested positive for COVID-19," said the statement.

"For operational security reasons, specific numbers of affected members will not be released."

The statement went on to say that Canadian Forces members who receive positive diagnoses are placed under the medical supervision of on-site doctors until they recover. The military also conducts contact tracing to identify other potential cases and limit the spread of infection.

"The affected members are currently in isolation or quarantine — isolation is for members who either test positive or display symptoms of COVID-19, and quarantine is a preventive measure for members who were in contact with people suspected or confirmed to have contracted the disease, but do not show symptoms themselves," the statement said.

With the exception of reporting on the number of troops who contracted COVID-19 during last spring's deployment into long-term care homes, the defence department has been steadfast in its refusal to acknowledge the number of confirmed cases across the whole force, especially among deployed contingents.

Eihenbaums said the number of confirmed cases on the base near Riga is small compared to the civilian population in Latvia and presents no danger. He said it's important to speak out publicly to stop the spread of rumours and Russian disinformation.

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