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New Mexico's Bataan Death March memorial trek is still on

U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Sylvia Orozco, with the 383rd Quartermaster Battalion, and Capt. Roxanna Flores and Sgt. Desiree Lopez with the 356th Transportation Company, approach mile marker 8 on the 26 mile Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Mar. 17, 2019.

BRANDON R. MACE/U.S. ARMY

By ALGERNON D'AMMASSA AND MICHAEL MCDEVITT | Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M. | Published: March 10, 2020

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — The 31st annual Bataan Memorial Death March is still on for this Sunday even as fears over the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have caused other mass gatherings to be canceled.

The 26.2-mile trek around the desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range draws thousands of attendees from all over the U.S. and a dozen countries each year. It honors American and Filipino soldiers who defended the Philippines during World War II and were forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to march 65 miles through the jungle and endure torture.

Registered marchers will begin picking up their orientation packets at the Las Cruces Convention Center Thursday afternoon, with preliminary events Friday and Saturday at several locations including New Mexico State University's Pan American Center. Opening ceremonies for Sunday's march begin at 6 a.m. on the range. More than 9,000 people are expected to march.

Col. Chris Ward, the garrison commander at WSMR, told the Las Cruces City Council on Monday that post staff were using discretion recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the event, slated for March 15, approaches.

As of Monday there were more than 109,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and more than 3,800 deaths, according to data released by the World Health Organization. The virus has spread to 35 U.S. states and Washington, D.C.

With 57 people tested, there were no confirmed cases in New Mexico as of Monday afternoon.

Elsewhere, fears of potential spreading of the virus caused the cancellation of the annual South by Southwest music film and technology conference in Austin, Texas. Some guests canceled appearances at the Las Cruces International Film Festival last week. Other concerts, conferences and festivals have become victim to the same fate.

The Bataan Memorial Death March, however, will continue as scheduled but with some contingencies in place, Ward told the council.

This year's march will exclude participants from China. Iran, Italy and South Korea — countries with Level 3 Travel Health Notices from the CDC since the spread of the virus there is considered "widespread" with "ongoing transmission."

Ward said there had been two marchers signed up from Italy, who would not be permitted to participate. No marchers from other Level 3 countries had registered. Registration remains open as late as Saturday.

Ward said the risk the virus poses to march attendees as of March 9 is low. But he said since the situation is fluid, event staff will be taking new information into account as it's released.

Since registration for the march is still open, Ward said staff will be prescreening registrants in real time for their travel history and countries of origin. Anyone who registers will be emailed asking if they're from the affected countries or if they've traveled to one of them in the last 14 days.

As marchers come to pick up registration packets at the Las Cruces Convention Center Thursday through Saturday, some new rules will be in effect.

Every marcher must pick up their own packet. Nobody will be allowed to sign for another marcher's packet, according to the event's website.

Ward said everyone collecting packets would be again asked if they've been to a Level 3 country within the last 14 days. Staff from Memorial Medical Center will join WSMR officials at the convention center to evaluate those identified to be a hgiher risk or in case anyone is exhibiting symptoms associated with the virus.

Ward said event officials are coordinating with Memorial Medical and William Beaumont Army Medical Center so anyone exhibiting symptoms gets the appropriate care.

The march is dedicated to making things as sanitary as possible, Ward said. The route has 124 handwashing and sanitization stations and eight medical stations staffed by army personnel and civilians. WSMR staff are making sure areas like food courts and restrooms are sanitized ahead of Sunday.

The New Mexico Department of Public Health has not recommended that any mass gatherings be canceled, including the Bataan march.

Department spokesman David Morgan told the Sun-News: "There is no specific input for Bataan attendees beyond the general advice of don’t attend if you are sick and wash hands regularly."

The convention center's interim general manager, Mark Arancibia, said the facility was closely monitoring any new developments involving the coronavirus, and would follow the guidance of the CDC and local health officials.

"The health and safety of our guests and employees is our top priority," he said.

Ward encouraged prospective attendees to make up their own minds and take the precautions they deem necessary, whether that be avoiding the event altogether or opting to wear face masks or eye protection.

He said people who feel sick should not attempt the arduous march in any case — whatever the illness may be.

“It’s the Bataan Memorial Death March. This event is hard enough when you’re 100 percent healthy," Ward said.

mmcdevitt@lcsun-news.com

adammassa@lcsun-news.com

©2020 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)
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