Editor’s Note: This story was last updated at 11:58 p.m. March 15 to include the most up-to-date information
The Air Force has finalized guidance to stop the flow of Airmen around the world, authorized telework for most Pentagon-based personnel, canceled all outreach activities and support to community events through May 15, and dismissed most students early at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in response to the new coronavirus outbreak.
The announcements came the same day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the virus and its resulting respiratory illness, COVID-19. The declaration makes up to $50 billion available to states and localities to combat the virus.
“Department of Air Force personnel who work on the Pentagon reservation have been authorized to telework when the mission allows in order to disperse the workforce during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” an Air Force spokeswoman told Air Force Magazine. “The Department of the Air Force will continue to do our part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as we protect the health of our personnel while ensuring complete readiness to defend our nation.”
The Pentagon Reservation’s Health Protection Condition level rose to Bravo on March 15, a move approved by Defense Secretary Mark Esper the day before. HPCON Bravo refers to an “outbreak or heightened exposure risk,” and demands that individuals take “moderate” steps to protect themselves against the medical threat at hand, according to a reference graphic about the HPCON scale published by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., on March 10. These include avoiding handshakes and cleaning “common-use items,” wearing a mask and staying home if you’ve been exposed to the pathogen in question, avoiding “contaminated water/food” and identified risk areas, and “vector control,” the graphic states.
Esper also raised the HPCON levels to Charlie at DOD’s Armed Forces Retirement Homes in the nation’s capital and Gulfport, Miss. HPCON level Charlie refers to a “high morbidity epidemic or contamination, and demands “substantial” health protection measures, such as social distancing—which includes keeping meetings, social gatherings, and TDYs to a minimum—and sheltering “in place indoors” or wearing a respirator if instructed to do so, a reference graphic about the HPCON scale said.
The HPCON-level shifts are intended “to assist public health efforts and contain the spread of the virus at the Pentagon and associated facilities in the National Capital Regions, including the Mark Center, Defense Health Headquarters, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and DOD leased facilities, as well as our retirement homes,” according to a release.
Though some Air Force-affiliated people have tested positive for the virus, the number who have or are thought to have the virus remains low.
Travis Air Force Base, Calif., announced March 15 that officials are monitoring two positive cases of COVID-19, an Active-duty Airman and a dependent. Both people are in isolation at their off-base residences, and public health officials have started the process of finding and identifying anyone who may have come into contact with them, according to the Facebook post.
The base had already announced that it will run with solely “mission-essential personnel” March 16-27 to safeguard the installation’s personnel and their relatives against COVID-19.
An Active-duty Airman assigned to Altus Air Force Base, Okla., is expected to prove positive for the virus on a test taken after traveling to Seattle. The Airman is receiving treatment. A contractor at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., has also tested positive for the virus. Another “presumptive positive” service member is at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., though the Pentagon hasn’t announced which armed service he or she belongs to. Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., said March 13 a civilian employee is the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. The person felt unwell after traveling to Illinois and is getting treatment.
“We are working with our base medical staff and other off base health care agencies to ensure we mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in accordance with established CDC and DOD guidelines,” said Col. Patrick Carley, 42nd Air Base Wing commander.
Meanwhile, the Academy is sending all cadets but its senior class home, hoping that shrinking the on-campus population will protect those students from the new coronavirus.
“This action is to maximize the chances of graduating our senior class on time for our Air and Space Forces while ensuring the best possible care for the entire base populace,” the school said March 13. “Ultimately, the deciding factor was recommendations from our public health officials and the inability to execute social distancing [for] over 4,000 cadets here on campus.”
USAFA said it consulted with the other service academies, medical professionals, and local civic leaders to reach the “conservative decision.” The school is monitoring multiple people for illness but has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19.
“Our multi-disciplinary COVID-19 Working Group is meeting regularly to monitor and mitigate impacts to our mission,” the academy said. “While USAFA remains a low-risk area, we will continue to assess the situation closely and remain prepared for any contingency.”
The academy did not immediately answer further questions.
As of March 13, USAFA is temporarily closed to all visitors but remains open to those on official business and people with Defense Department identification cards. Spectators are banned from home sporting events, and like the Pentagon, the school is considering its telework and distance learning options.
The Space Foundation also said March 13 it would postpone its 2020 Space Symposium, the annual gathering that brings more than 14,000 people from around the world to Colorado Springs.
The Defense Department announced March 12 its personnel are prohibited from traveling to, from, or through most of Europe, South Korea, China, and Iran for 60 days. That list is subject to change by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The stop movement applies to all forms of official travel such as permanent change of station, temporary duty, and government-funded leave for uniformed and civilian personnel, and includes personal leave and other non-official travel for uniformed personnel,” the Air Force said.
In addition, the Air Force has canceled on-base and civilian sponsored airshows, band performances, community engagements, and meetings. This decision does not preclude leaders from meeting or coordinating with local and community officials, according to a statement.
The U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine Epidemiology Laboratory is collecting potential COVID-19 samples from military treatment facilities around the world. The samples are collected according to CDC guidelines and then sent to the lap, or a local public health lab, to be tested.
“Any presumptive positive test is then confirmed by the CDC per guidelines. The USAFSAM Epi Lab enters all information from the tested samples into the appropriate medical system for medical decision making, and … also sends daily updates to [the Defense Health Agency] for oversight,” the Air Force said.