Osan commander orders air base to shelter in place following coronavirus infection
By JOSEPH DITZLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 19, 2021
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TOKYO – A U.S. Air Force base in South Korea went on lockdown Friday evening after the first service member there tested positive for the coronavirus, the base commander said.
Col. John Gonzales, commander of the 51st Fighter Wing, ordered anyone affiliated with the base to return home and stay put except for food or other essential business. He said the lockdown, or shelter-in-place, may end as early as Saturday.
Gonzales, in a video posted to Osan’s Facebook page, said he was “truly disgusted” at reports the infected service member attended an off-base party Feb. 13, in violation of all U.S. military public health protection orders and South Korean government directives, too. He ordered anyone who attended the gathering at Dream Castle, building 101, rooms 403 and 404, to quarantine immediately and inform their commands.
Gonzales’ weekend lockdown order comes just as U.S. personnel were set to explore their surroundings after more than a month of tight restrictions that ended Monday.
“Don’t let this incident get down on your morale,” he said. “We’re going to bounce back and we’re going to be able to get out there very soon and do the things that we want to do.”
Another seven people, not affiliated with Osan Air Base, are also infected, Gonzales said. Anyone who contracted the virus a week ago may show symptoms of COVID-19, the coronavirus respiratory disease, or test positive, Gonzales said.
U.S. Forces Korea reported two other new cases Friday, one going back to Feb. 4. The U.S. military in Japan reported four new patients.
New strain in Tokyo
Also Friday, a Reuters news report said a new variant of the coronavirus has surfaced in Tokyo just as the pandemic’s third wave in Japan is tapering off.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported another 353 people infected with the virus Friday, 92 fewer new infections than the previous day, according to public broadcaster NHK and metro government data. One-day case numbers have trended lower since the pandemic peak of 2,520 on Jan. 7 and have been below 500 for nearly two weeks.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters that 91 cases of the new variant have surfaced in the Kanto area, which includes metro Tokyo and several U.S. military bases, and two cases appeared at airports, according to Reuters.
Variants raise concern because they may spread faster. The new strain has a mutation found on other variants that may undermine vaccine effectiveness, Reuters reported Friday.
“It may be more contagious than conventional strains, and if it continues to spread domestically, it could lead to a rapid rise in cases,” the report quoted Kato as saying.
The new strain apparently originated overseas but differs from other strains already discovered in Japan, according to Reuters.
Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba are under a state of emergency until March 7 as authorities try to rein the virus’ spread.
U.S. bases in the metro area, including the headquarters for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, have imposed restrictions that echo the emergency measures, such as an 8 p.m. curfew on restaurant dining and travel bans.
Central Tokyo and nearby Yokohama are off-limits to U.S. military personnel in Japan. This includes civilian employees and family members, except those on official business or who live there.
More U.S. patients
Yokosuka Naval Base, homeport of the U.S. 7th Fleet south of Tokyo, said in a Facebook post Friday that two new arrivals to Japan tested positive and a third case was discovered through contact tracing.
Yokosuka has 33 patients still under observation. So far in February, the base has reported 53 infections.
Kadena Air Base on Okinawa said one person came up positive on the test required for exiting quarantine, according to a Facebook post Friday. That person was isolated after returning from travel outside Japan, the base said. An unspecified number of close contacts were also quarantined.
In South Korea, USFK corrected a Feb. 11 report of a false positive and said a service member at Camp Casey, 40 miles north of Seoul, had actually tested positive Feb. 4 during a screening program, according to a Friday news release.
A second patient, the spouse of a service member in the U.S., tested positive Feb. 10 at Songtan Health Center near Osan, according to USFK. That person had contact with someone previously infected who is not associated with the base, the release said. Both individuals are in quarantine.
USFK has reported 727 coronavirus cases, 84 of which were contracted locally. The remainder were people arriving from outside the country, mainly from the States.