Several suspected cases of coronavirus including one confirmed case involving a senior-ranking officer will not stop the planned weekend training exercises for several hundred Air Force reserve troops at Warfield Air National Guard base in Baltimore County this weekend.
Servicemen and women from states bordering Maryland and as far away as Connecticut are expected to attend.
But a serviceman stationed at the base said that current protections in place are not enough to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
This week the Baltimore Post-Examiner learned of new allegations where airmen reported flu-like symptoms similar to COVID-19, were permitted to enter the base.
Once inside, the same people were not required to wear gloves, protective masks or self-quarantine. Instead, they were asked to re-answer questions – every 20 minutes – on a questionnaire that they first completed at the entrance gate, said an Air National Guard airman who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
“They are allowing people in through the front gate who have said ‘yes, I have flu-like symptoms, yes, I have had contact with someone who has exhibited flu-like symptoms,’” said the Air National Guard airman. “This virus has been spreading, doubling every two or three days. People are scared. The protections are not enough.”
This weekend the base is expected to host several hundred reserve troops for required monthly training exercises.
Normally, training weekends involve around 1,100 troops, but Maryland National Guard spokesman Capt. Benjamin C. Hughes said the group size has been lowered this month.
“We have over 250 people on this base at any given time,” an airman said. “A drill this weekend is coming up with 400+ people from multiple states – Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania – as far up as Connecticut.”
Airmen said the gyms and dining halls at the base are closed, but it’s not enough.
“From what I see, from what people say, they are not good guidelines at all,” the airman said. “If we are to be quarantined, we must be diagnosed with COVID-19 first.”
The Maryland National Guard confirmed their first positive case of COVID-19 a week ago, but a spokesman would not reveal which unit the case was associated with.
On Thursday, a source at the Warfield base said a second case was confirmed involving a senior officer, although Hughes declined to officially confirm the diagnosis.
The Department of Defense changed its COVID-19 case reporting policy Monday.
“[We are] not denying, just not releasing number of cases, names, units or any other personal information due to privacy reasons,” Hughes said Thursday – of the alleged cases at Warfield.
Hughes said this weekend the dining facilities will be reopened to serve carry out meals only and social distancing practices will be in place, like they are now. Any reserves scheduled for training this weekend are also free to telework if it is feasible for their mission.
“The Maryland Air National Guard is acting in accordance with CDC, DoD and the Governor’s guidance and regulations,” Hughes said. “Airmen are screened each time they enter the base and practice appropriate social distancing. If an airman becomes sick with any illness, they are asked to remain at home.”
Gov. Larry J. Hogan, Jr., declared on March 5 a state of emergency in Maryland due to the coronavirus. As part of his order, Hogan called the Maryland National Guard into “State” active duty. When National Guard units are not mobilized or under federal control, they report to the governor of their respective state.
Two thousand, two-hundred guard members were activated, Hughes said.
Last week, airmen from the 175th Wing of the Maryland Air National Guard worked the Maryland Office of Preparedness and Response loading medical supplies from the Maryland Strategic National Stockpile.
A day earlier, a select group from the 175th Wing headed to BWI to take quarantined passengers from the Grand Princess cruise line home, where the passengers would begin a two-week self-quarantine.
A Pentagon spokesman said base commanders should be communicating with local government and civilian officials to keep them abreast of any coronavirus outbreaks.
According to the new DOD reporting policy, each military branch will collectively report cases, but not on specifics of individual bases. The new measure is meant to prevent adversaries from receiving information that could be perceived as military weaknesses.
“[T]he Department of Defense has issued department-wide guidance to ensure continued public reporting of cases of COVID-19 positive DOD personnel through the responsibility military services,” Press Secretary Alyssa Farah stated in a March 30 press release. “In keeping with our commitment to transparency, we will assiduously continue to make the public aware of the presence of any potential new COVID-19 outbreaks within our base communities. Base commanders are instructed to continue to work with local community health officials to share information on base community cases.”
“We’re monitoring our personnel closely and responding appropriately,” Hughes said. “This virus affects us just as it affects everybody else.”
The airman, however, said more needs to be done.
“We have people here who have young children and live with elderly family members,” the airman said. “We’re worried about ourselves as well as the people we live with.”
FEATURE PHOTO: (From left) U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Bradly Tuthill and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Malloy, both ground transportation specialists with the 175the Logistics Readiness Squadron, prepare and load boxes of medical supplies and equipment on March 19, 2020, at the Maryland Strategic National Stockpile location. All assets provided were prioritized for health care workers and hospitals in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Christopher Schepers)