Military training, preparedness in Hawaii running into conflict with coronavirus social distancing

Second Lt. Donovan Tuisano, planner with the Hawaii National Guard Joint Staff, prepares the leadership briefing for the Hawaii National Guard's coronavirus response in Honolulu on March 18, 2020.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: March 24, 2020

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HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — All gyms on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have been closed until further notice after a “patron” of the Hickam gym tested positive for coronavirus, the base said Sunday.

Marine Corps Base Hawaii posted a video today showing Marines lifting weights in a base gym with one saying to another, ‘Hey man, can you give me a little more space when you are spotting,” as a reminder for social distancing — while still using the gym.

Therein lies a dilemma for the military in Hawaii and everywhere as it attempts to balance unit cohesiveness and closeness in training and on deployments with actions that often runs counter to the need for social distancing.

“The Army is a people organization. We are used to eating together, working out in the same areas, and being in horseshoe formations. Leaders, we must change our behavior and prevent the spread of the virus,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said on Friday.

The Army has 191,000 soldiers operating on missions worldwide and the service “must preserve our ability to meet the needs of the nation,” McCarthy said. But he also acknowledged that “we are altering exercises, training and our day-to-day operations to ensure safety for all.”

He said the Army is aligned along three lines of effort with coronavirus — prevent, detect and treat.

In the Army in Hawaii, there are four announced COVID cases that as of Sunday included a soldier, two Tripler Army Medical Center civilian employees and a Wheeler Army Airfield civilian employee. A Marine at Camp H.M. Smith also was positive, and the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam “patron” now has the virus.

Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division, said during a Facebook video Sunday evening that the Army was still processing Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s limited lockdown that goes into effect today.

“We still do not understand the implications of what that means to our” U.S. Army Hawaii community, he said, adding that more clarification should come tonight.

As for deployments, Schofield Barracks soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment and counterparts from the Royal Thai Army officially started Exercise Hanuman Guardian 20 on Feb. 24 in Korat, Thailand.

The 10th and “most robust iteration” of the exercise “upholds U.S. commitments with its allies and key regional partners to provide trained, ready, and interoperable Army forces for a full spectrum of operations,” the Army said.

U.S participation includes approximately 1,440 personnel from Schofield, with the exercise slated to run through most of May.

“There has been no decision to curtail that exercise and bring our soldiers home — so far,” Jarrard said.

The 25th Division commanding general said “the No. 1 priority is the safety of our soldiers,” and the risks are constantly being reassessed.

“We are aware that the situation in Thailand is changing,” Jarrard said. “Just over the last 24 hours they’ve had significant increases in the number of COVID cases.”

Jarrard said he would keep tabs on “what the embassy there is thinking” to assess risk to the force.

Hawaii Marines, meanwhile, are preparing to head to Australia for several months of annual training, where they will promptly have to self-quarantine for 14 days to meet that country’s requirements.

The base is sending, at a minimum, AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The total force contingent was unclear today.

Joshua Ian Wabindato said he saw two white military buses full of Marines pull into Puuloa Range Training Facility Friday and a bunch of private vehicles in the parking lot. The firing range was active all day, he said.

Marines at guard shacks were “chit chatting with other Marines working one foot away from each other,” Wabindato said.

“I do not feel safe for these Marines’ health and well-being nor my own and furthermore they are ignoring” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidance for social distancing, he said in an email.

U.S. Pacific Fleet said that on Saturday, five sailors assigned to San Diego-based ships tested positive for COVID-19 after two others were identified the day before.

Personnel who were immediately identified as having close contact with the sailors have been notified, placed in a restriction of movement status at their residences off the ship and are being monitored, the Navy said.

Pacific Fleet said the ships “are executing an aggressive mitigation strategy to minimize spread of COVID-19” including:

- Having medical stations with representatives to review screening checklists with all personnel coming aboard the ship.

- Watchstanders are outfitted with nitrile gloves, there is no physical touching, and watchstanders are maintaining social distancing. Minimizing group gatherings also is being emphasized.

- Ship personnel are conducting deep cleaning with bleach on a twice-daily basis.

- Antiseptic wipes and hand sanitizer are located throughout the ship, particularly in workspaces near computers, mess decks, common areas, and tool issue.

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