With hundreds of servicemen stationed at Ft. Indiantown Gap, the National Guard training installation in the northern part of Lebanon County, the threat of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus is a constant concern.
But officials at the Gap are making sure the disease does not gain a foothold at the installation, while maintaining their mission of helping where needed during this time of crisis.
“In an abundance of caution, we had placed people in quarantine and ran tests, but no one on the base has tested positive,” said Lt. Colonel Keith Hickox, public affairs officer for Ft. Indiantown Gap. “We continue to take every precaution.”
When looking across the entire state, including part-time Reservists who are at home, one or more has tested positive, but the number is very minimal, Hickox said.
“We were monitoring several presumptively (on the base),but those have since tested negative,” Hickox said, explaining anyone with cold-like symptoms would have been tested.
No large-scale testing is being done on Guardsmen at the Gap, and no one is currently under quarantine, Hickox said.
For service members, various locales at the Gap are being used for simple screening, where they’ll be asked health questions and have temperatures checked.
Any work that can be done from home or via phone is being utilized now, he added.
“We are tracking individuals, both on-duty and off-duty, tracking their status and monitoring their situations so we can keep a good understanding of our forces,” Hickox said. “We are implementing every mitigation possibility while making sure we’re ready to respond to state and federal missions.”
Most of the scheduled training at the Gap was been postponed or cancelled, Hickox said, with the exception of training for units preparing for deployment.
Some of that training must continue, Hickox said, while officials implement their own mitigation efforts.
“We’re looking at every event the unit has to do and finding the safest way there is to do it,” Hickox said.
Incoming flights of Guardsmen scheduled to arrive at the Gap have also been postponed.
The installation is still open and the public may drive through, Hickox said. (Construction on a pair of gates meant to secure access to the base had previously been scheduled to begin this spring.)
The base post exchange (PX) is closed, Hickox said, not due to illness, but because of staffing issues.
“There are all kinds of challenges right now,” Hickox said, explaining that some employees of the PX are staying home with their children who are out of school.
The Guardsmen stationed at Ft. Indiantown Gap have been assisting both Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency and the federal EMA in missions related to the coronavirus.
Approximately 600 Guardsmen are currently on coronavirus-related missions across the state at this time.
“All three of our geographic task forces can be called up in response to any state mission, whether it’s a hurricane, flood or snowstorm, and each task force has Army and Air Force units,” Hickox said.
On March 17, about 50 Guardsmen helped to transport cruise ship passengers returning from quarantine to their homes in Pennsylvania.
The passengers had been in quarantine at an Air Force base in Georgia, where they had been tested for the coronavirus.
While awaiting results, if the passengers were asymptomatic, and while strict isolation was still being maintained, they were allowed to return to their homes.
Guardsmen whose military specialty is in the medical field and who have received special training in dealing with contaminated environments are helping to test the public for COVID-19 at a Montgomery County testing site, where they process hundreds of people per day, Hickox said.
Several service members have also helped to unload medical supplies from the Pennsylvania Department of Health in the Harrisburg area.
Just last week, several Guardsmen helped to set up medical beds and equipment for a FEMA field hospital in the former Glen Mills School in Delaware County to take the overflow of patients from local hospitals, Hickox said.
The field hospital will be used for non-coronavirus patients who are in less critical condition, freeing up more hospital space for those fighting COVID-19.
“Infectious disease is something we’re always on guard for,” Hickox said.
Two years ago, while in Kuwait, a serious infection swept through the area where he was stationed, and the military responded, Hickox said.
“We did many precautions and preventive measures to mitigate the transmission of that aggressive disease and it’s similar to what we’re doing now, only not as widely as this,” Hickox said. “We are planners and we like to stay several steps ahead (of the virus), so we have many contingency plans to stay strong and to make sure our service members are properly taken care of if the health conditions continue to escalate.”
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