As Fairchild Air Force Base continued to adapt to state- and military-mandated COVID-19 precautions this week, the Department of Defense announced new guidance Monday for military installations to halt the release of case counts in order to protect their operational security.
“We will assiduously continue to make the public aware of the presence of any potential new COVID-19 outbreaks within our base communities,” Department of Defense Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said in a statement.
But exactly how and at what point Fairchild – the largest tanker refueling wing in the Air Force – would do that is unclear.
Each military branch releases aggregated data for cases in service members, civilian employees and dependents. For the Air Force, that number was 465 as of Thursday afternoon.
The Department of Defense order extends to Fairchild sharing case counts with people living on the base, though the Spokane Regional Health District will include in its data Air Force personnel and dependents who test positive and live in Spokane County.
“The reasoning behind (the order) isn’t to dampen transparency,” said Staff Sgt. Nick Daniello, a Fairchild spokesperson. “We don’t want to release any information showing that our mission could be degraded at all.”
The order is also in effect at Naval Base Kitsap and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, where one case of COVID-19 was reported in a shipyard worker, according to the Kitsap Sun. The same goes for Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where there were six COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, The News Tribune in Tacoma reported.
About 14,000 service members, civilians and dependents are affiliated with the Air Force base near Airway Heights, and a majority of them live in the greater Spokane area, according to Fairchild officials.
But because the Spokane Regional Health District has yet to provide information about case counts for specific cities, residents have little idea of where people confirmed to have COVID-19 are residing.
“We are looking at mapping it and how we can do that publicly,” said Kelli Hawkins, Spokane Regional Health District public information officer. “We also don’t want it to be deceiving,” she added, because the virus “could have been contracted anywhere.”
Fairchild’s first – and only reported – case of COVID-19 was confirmed by a military lab on March 16 and was linked to the two-week closure of Northern Quest Resort & Casino and the deep cleaning of Sacajawea Middle School, where the airman’s children attended school but the service member did not enter.
The airman, who was the fourth case in Spokane at the time, was isolated in an off-base residence.
Thecase led base commander Col. Derek Salmi to declare a public health emergency, giving him authority to restrict movement of Air Force personnel and to implement quarantines or isolation for affected people.
Salmi’s order followed city and county leaders declaring states of emergency earlier the same day. The base worked with the Spokane Regional Health District to trace who may have come into close contact with the airman while contagious, which could happen again if more cases are confirmed.
Fairchild reported no new cases as of March 24, when health officials were awaiting test results for 45 people. Forty-four people had tested negative at that point.
As of last Sunday, the day before the Department of Defense order went into effect, Spokane public health officials said they had not been informed of additional cases at Fairchild.
But the Spokane Regional Health District is not concerned about the new mandate.
“As long as we have good communication going, we fell pretty confident that Department of Defense order is not going to affect how we communicate with the public,” Hawkins said. “It’s really just about helping national security while keeping our community safe.”
In many ways, Fairchild has sought for its on-base precautions to mirror those at the state level.
The base increased its health protection condition level the same day Gov. Jay Inslee declared his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. It also limited base access to Department of Defense identification cardholders and civilians required to work starting March 24.
Airmen and their families were also asked to follow Inslee’s physical distancing guidelines and stay home as much as possible. Any personnel who are able to work from home are doing so, according to Sgt. Travis Edwards, a Fairchild spokesperson.
To reduce personal contact at entrance gates, Fairchild security forces began scanning identification cards while they remained in cardholders’ hands on March 17.
Base restaurants and grocery stores remained open as of Friday, but its theater, gym and teen center, along with many other facilities, were closed. More than a dozen other facilities were operating under reduced hours or services, including the child care center, which has been designated for mission-essential personnel.
Fairchild’s medical clinic, 92nd Medical Group, has performed drive-thru COVID-19 screening and testing, as well as symptom screenings for all visitors. But if someone affiliated with the base needs to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, that person will need to be transported to one of Spokane’s major hospitals.
“Team Fairchild’s care and support efforts have been simply outstanding and we will continue to stay lockstep with our community partners as we transition into a different sense of ‘normal’ in the days ahead so together we can ‘Flatten the Curve,’ ” Salmi said in a statement.
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