Coronavirus cases have accelerated among Air Force recruits in San Antonio since the service ramped up testing five weeks ago, including a recent spike of 13 cases in one week.
So far, a system of isolating positive cases and quarantining small groups developed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland has allowed basic training there to continue.
A cumulative total of 48 recruits have tested positive, with most recovering and re-entering training, but 13 of those cases were discovered in the week ending June 22, the latest period covered by updates provided by the Air Education and Training Command.
The command said increased testing of all recruits on the base began May 19 and resulted “in a correlating uptick of positive cases.” Prior to universal screening, AETC had tested only recruits who showed symptoms when screened upon arrival at Lackland.
The first infection by the virus of a military training instructor, or MTI, at Lackland was confirmed June 23, but the Air Force said it didn’t have a number when asked if any of the instructor’s family had tested positive.
“The safety measures we have in place allowed for quick action to get the MTI the care needed as well as prompted the immediate start of contact tracing to protect and isolate potentially exposed populations,” AETC spokeswoman Marilyn Holliday said in an emailed response to questions. “All who may have had contact have been placed into quarantine as a necessary safety measure.”
Even with the recent spike, Air Force basic training has had fewer cases when compared with other services. Both AETC and the 59th Medical Wing said most of the recruits turning up positive had shown no symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, which has killed 126,000 Americans. No airman has died of the disease, but one Air Force dependent and three civilians working on Air Force installations have.
A spokesman for the medical wing, Kiley Keenzel, said those at Lackland who had symptoms so far have not been sick enough to be hospitalized.
Faced with the threat of outbreaks that could cripple or even shut down basic training at Lackland, the medical wing in March developed a plan that required new recruits to be isolated from all other personnel on the base for two weeks after arriving, Some 7,260 trainees have gone though the “restriction of movement” process since March 17, receiving instruction far from other personnel, wearing protective face coverings and sleeping farther apart.
They then go through regular basic training in groups of 40 to 60 to allow social distancing. Those in the group can be quarantined if one of the cohort tests positive and tracing finds that they were in close proximity.
The Navy and Marines briefly shut down their training pipelines in late March but have since restarted them. The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, in April called coping with the virus the “new abnormal” as the nation awaits a vaccine, something not expected to occur this year.
The Air Force also created a second basic training facility at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., during the first week of April. Like recruits at Lackland, flights of 60 trainees will undergo a shortened version of boot camp — six weeks, rather than 8½ prior to the pandemic — and remain at Keesler for their technical training. No one there has tested positive.
Recruits at Lackland train for seven weeks, and “graduation standards remain unchanged, but blocks of training have been adjusted to deliver more values-based content and academic instruction up-front” while in the restriction of movement phase, said Holliday, the AETC spokeswoman.
“Activities requiring increased physical exertion and specialized training infrastructure occur later in the training schedule,” she said.
The decision to add Keesler to the mix of basic training was historic because Lackland had been the sole location for that task since 1968, but commanders say the idea has worked well, and they will keep the installation in Mississippi as a second recruit hub at least through the end of September. It could run “for as long as the current situation demands,” Holliday said.
A recruit from Kentucky became Lackland’s first confirmed case after showing COVID-19 symptoms March 22. Prior to a May 12 Pentagon order to screen all recruits, only those showing symptoms were tested.
A study published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report early this month examined the first seven weeks of what it called “nonpharmaceutical interventions” and praised the work of the 59th Medical Wing. Out of 10,579 trainees, it said, the incidence of COVID-19 was limited to five cases.
The report noted that about 40,000 fledgling airmen are trained each year at Lackland, with about 800 of them arriving on the base every week — a number that has been cut by about a third since March to allow social distancing of bunks and separation of groups of trainees. The recruits now sleep 9 feet apart.
A sixth case was reported April 20. By mid-June, the AETC had updated the total to 35, coinciding with the increase in testing that began May 19. One week later, by June 22, the total had increased to 48 cases.
The news about the uptick in coronavirus cases at Lackland was shared with Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a recent visit here. News media in San Antonio were not told of the visit by the Pentagon and AETC or invited to cover the event.
As it stands, coronavirus may not impact the bottom line at basic training: the number of graduates. The Air Force last year graduated 39,000 recruits at Lackland, and the plan now is to produce 40,000.
“As we continue to navigate this ever-evolving environment, we remain vigilant with our safety precautions and evaluate our protocols to adjust as required,” Holliday said.
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