“What’s next?” is the question many community members are likely asking about Fort Lee’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the installation’s recent implementation of Health Protection Condition-Charlie measures.

“First and foremost, I can promise that we are going to continue doing everything we can to limit the spread of COVID-19 and help flatten the curve,” responded Garrison Commander Col. Hollie Martin. “Second, we are going to continue our vital training mission. We must maintain a state of readiness that allows us to defend our nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, which is something every one of us in uniform swore an oath to do.”

While some looking from the outside-in might view these as mutually exclusive priorities, Martin sees it much differently. “If we don’t have a healthy force, readiness is impacted. If we don’t have a well-trained force, readiness is impacted. So, we need to do both,” she said.

Of the two, however, Martin said the life, health and safety of the Army community clearly comes first.

“Regardless of the inaccurate information we see on social media every day – whether shared deliberately or unwittingly – our installation leaders from the senior commander down to platoon leaders and drill sergeants are committed to protecting the health and welfare of our military personnel,” Martin said. “The Army Secretary is absolutely right; the No. 1 priority is our people.”

So, the answer to “what’s next” starts at that baseline, meaning actions such as social distancing, avoiding unnecessary gatherings of more than 10 people and telework for non-mission-essential employees will continue for the foreseeable future.

“Again, looking at social media and the comments from some community members who say those things aren’t happening, you have to ask, ‘why not?’ Is it because an individual or group is not taking it seriously? And if the person making that accusation isn’t correcting it through their supervisor or chain of command, how is that helping?” Martin questioned. “The senior commander has issued the guidance, and the community is expected to follow it. In the days ahead, that should be foremost in everyone’s minds.”

Further command guidance was included in the announcement last week about Fort Lee’s response posture being elevated to HPCON-C. The following are the salient points:

  • Access now limited to residents and those considered essential to the installation and its mission.
  • Security personnel are asking individuals why they are visiting the installation and denying access to non-essential visitors. Beneficiaries with commissary and health care privileges will be allowed on post, as will mission essential transportation and mission essential/critical contractors.
  • Food, medical and postal delivery still permitted, but those individuals must leave the installation immediately after their business is completed.
  • Commercial passenger transportation limited to eight authorized taxi cabs; all others, including ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are prohibited (unless performing food delivery).
  • New gate hours in effect (see listing at home.army.mil/lee/index.php/visitors)
  • All Child Development Centers closed through at least April 10.

Deep-cleaning is underway at the CDC facilities, Martin assured, and the centers will likely be open to mission-essential patrons only if they are able to reopen as scheduled. Those steps along with continued social distancing safeguards will be implemented to mitigate risk.

The commonwealth’s steadily rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases also is a near-future concern. The chance of coming into contact with someone who is sick is increasing, and individuals who still have the freedom to head out into the community need to be extra diligent in their prevention protocols such as regular hand washing, covering their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze, and not touching their face with unwashed hands. Equally important is immediate isolation if virus symptoms develop, followed by contacting the Kenner COVID-19 hotline at 1-866-533-5242, option 4.

“The intense nature of the public health situation continues to spark opportunities throughout our community for individuals to express opinions and frustrations via social media channels,” Martin said. “Some of these comments show how people are pulling together to support one another. These ‘threads’ of conversation provide great examples of positive behavior and show true selfless individuals who are reaching across neighborhoods and organizations to help others. We want to say thank you to those members of our community – it’s encouraging and we ask that you please continue to find ways to contribute. 

“Conversely, for concerns among our Team Lee Family, we ask that you bring those issues to a leader – a supervisor or someone in the chain of command.  Daily, we see some opinions and photos on social media where leadership at the right level could assist if they knew about the issue. We ask that you channel your concerns to leaders throughout Team Lee.”

Community members also are advised that – by direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense – COVID-19 statistics are now being reported exclusively at the service levels due to operational security concerns.

“Unit level readiness data for key military forces is information that is classified as a risk to operational security and could jeopardize operations and/or deterrence,” read an official statement from the Secretary of Defense released Monday. “If a commander believes that COVID-19 could affect the readiness of our strategic deterrent or strategic response forces, we understandably protect that information from public release and falling into the hands of our adversaries – as we expect they would do the same. While services will not release the numbers of cases at each base, we will continue to work closely with the local communities to ensure the health and well-being of all.”

Martin said Fort Lee military and civilian personnel are required to support this directive by communicating reports and concerns about specific, local COVID-19 cases through official channels only, and not by publicly releasing or speculating about numbers of cases on Fort Lee.

Summarizing the military community’s current situation in a letter to the force also released on Monday, SecDef Dr. Mark Esper wrote the following:

“The Department of Defense is engaged in one of the great global challenges of our time as we work together to combat the spread of the Coronavirus. While the situation continues to evolve, I want to assure the force that we will take all necessary measures to protect our people and win this fight. As we aggressively respond to this pandemic, my priorities remain: protecting our troops, DOD Civilians, and their families; safeguarding our national security capabilities; and supporting President Trump’s whole-of-nation response.

“We are committed to taking every precaution to ensure the health and well-being of our people. That is why we have imposed restrictions on all domestic and international travel. We understand the impact of delaying PCS moves, modifying training exercises, and temporarily closing some installation services. These decisions are necessary to mitigate risk to you and your families while we work to ease the burden on the force as much as possible.

“During these times, it is important that we minimize person-to-person interaction and practice social distancing, whenever possible. I know this can be challenging in certain situations, as every unit, installation, and mission is unique. There are, however, some commonsense rules that we should all follow: do not crowd large groups of people into confined spaces for meetings or briefings; conduct tasks such as physical training and maintenance in small groups; and use teleworking and other virtual tools to enable staff work, when possible. I trust our commanders around the world to make the best decisions for their troops as they balance mission requirements with force health protection.

“As we do our part to mitigate the effects of this pandemic, we must remain prepared to carry out our core national security missions. Our adversaries may look to exploit this crisis, as much of the world's attention is directed toward the coronavirus. We will not hesitate to modify our security posture around the world, if necessary. Meanwhile, we will ensure all of our forward deployed troops receive the support and resources needed to accomplish their missions.

“At the same time, we will continue to support the whole-of-nation response to the Coronavirus. Thus far we have provided critical medical supplies to civilian hospitals, mobilized thousands of National Guard troops across the country, and are deploying the Navy's two hospital ships and multiple Army combat support hospitals. The Army Corps of Engineers is performing vital work to convert buildings into temporary hospitals. And, our world-class doctors and scientists remain on the leading edge of vaccine and treatment development.

“Together, we are doing what the department has done throughout its entire history – adapting, innovating and demonstrating why the American people call on the United States military during the most trying times. I am proud of our service members and DOD Civilians who are answering the call all around our great country. We will get through this together, and we will emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before.”