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U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper hosts a press engagement outside the NORAD and USNORTHCOM, the command leading DoD’s COVID-19 pandemic operations, during his visit to North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper denounced a late April letter from 10 U.S. senators that faulted him and the Pentagon's civilian leadership for failing to respond quickly enough to the coronavirus pandemic as a "partisan attack in a political year."

The criticism is "unfair to the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out there on America’s streets," Esper said Thursday outside of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. U.S. Northern Command is leading the Defense Department's coronavirus operations.

"I'm disappointed that some members of Congress would say that, particularly some who are members of the Armed Services Committee," Esper said. "It said the [Department of Defense] was being slow or something like that. As far as I'm concerned, that’s a criticism of all of DoD." 

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The April 27 letter — signed by 10 Democratic senators, including former presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Amy Kobuchar  of Minnesota — claims the Defense Department's "slow and disjointed" coronavirus response "put service members at risk and undermined readiness" and that the department "still lacks a systemic approach" to the pandemic.

The offices of Warren, Harris and Klobuchar did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Esper said Thursday the Defense Department is performing "exceptionally well in context of this coronavirus, in large measure due to what Northern Command has done" and has remained "ahead of the curve," citing 5,000 infections, 100 hospitalizations and two deaths among department employees. 

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The trip was Esper’s first outside of beyond Washington since he visited Norfolk, Va., in late March to join President Donald Trump in sending off a Navy hospital ship.

He did not wear a face mask during his remarks, made outdoors. He discussed wearing a mask on the plane ride to Colorado Springs but said the wearing of masks in "open air" is "not as essential."

"If we were going onto a submarine or a bomber or whatever, they’re going to take probably even more stringent actions to make sure they are safe and secure," he said. "Until we have a therapeutic and certainly a vaccine, we’re going to be exercising a good deal of caution and implementing those same best practices that have held us in good stead so far."

DoD is preparing for a second wave of coronavirus "and maybe more," he said. "We are preparing for the long haul."

Esper praised Northern Command's efforts in leading the department's response against the virus and said the pandemic has not significantly slowed down the search for a U.S. Space Command headquarters location, for which Colorado Springs is a contender.

The visit came as Trump pushes for a reopening of the country and for demonstrations of the administration's shift from crisis management to rebooting a battered economy. Trump ended his isolation in the White House with a trip to Arizona on Tuesday to visit a face mask factory, and Vice President Mike Pence has made several recent trips.

Gazette military reporter and editor Tom Roeder and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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