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Exclusive: Here’s the Army’s plan to ‘reopen’ amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The service's conditions-based approach helps lay out a framework for how installations can get back to normal.
Haley Britzky Avatar

The Army is preparing a color-coded system for commanders to implement as they look to loosen restrictions on their bases, according to internal documents obtained by Task & Purpose — mirroring new guidelines released Tuesday from the Pentagon to all military branches.

Though it hasn’t yet gone into effect, the Army’s plan to operate in a “persistent COVID-19 environment” would give commanders three-tier requirements as they grapple with the proverbial reopening of the military alongside the American economy.

“As the United States moves toward reopening sectors of America, the U.S. Army’s purpose remains constant: to deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt and sustained land dominance across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force,” an Army official told Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the document.

“To do this, we must be sure to balance activities that affect readiness and modernization while operating in a COVID-19 environment.”

Spc. Kala Gonzalez, assigned to the 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, discusses her job at Times Square in New York City, in support of the Department of Defense COVID-19 response, May 16, 2020.

Both the Army’s plans and the guidance outlined in a new memo from Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday mirror the White House’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again, which proposes that states see a consistent downward trajectory of positive cases and tests over two weeks, and that there are “robust” testing capabilities, among other things, before reopening.

Esper’s guidance to the force says that in order to ease restrictions on installations, commanders must see a 14-day downward trend in reported cases of illnesses, a downward trend in documented COVID-19 cases or percentage of positive tests, and the capability of MTFs and local hospitals to be able to treat patients along with having “an adequate diagnostic COVID-19 testing program in place.”

The four categories that Army commanders are being told to keep a close eye on are the local COVID-19 case rates, the capacity to treat the virus, capacity to test, and capacity to monitor. They will then grade each criteria as either green, amber, or red, depending on where in the process the installation is.

For example, Army commanders will be in the green if there is a consistent, 14-day downward trend in either positive cases or a percentage of positive tests. Having a sustained 7 to 13 day reduction would put the installation at amber, and a sustained reduction of 0 to 6 days means the installation is at a red status.

The installation’s status is automatically set back to red if there is a consecutive five-day increase, according to the documents. The case rate of the counties that share boundaries with an installation, and counties where a majority of the installation’s population live, will also feed into the assessment.

The Army official explained to Task & Purpose that the downward trends in positive cases are being used by commanders at the installation level to determine if they can move to HPCON Bravo, in line with Esper’s memo.

Meanwhile, an installation will be in the green for its capacity to treat if the military medical treatment facility (MTF) and local civilian healthcare network can provide six or more ICU beds with ventilators per 10,000 adults. It will be amber status if it has 3 to 5 beds per 10,000 people, and red if it has two or less ICU beds available.

Testing capacity needs to exceed the daily tests that are needed to earn a green status, while an installation will be marked as amber if it meets the daily requirement. A red status means testing requirements exceed the installation capacity. Installation commanders will measure that by combining the testing capacity of the installation and its surrounding community.

The document says that asymptomatic tests will only be performed “as part of a comprehensive risk reduction plan which includes elements of screening, quarantine, isolation and contact tracing.”

Pfc. Gian Zimnis, a Combat Medic Specialist from Queens, N.Y., assigned to the New York Army National Guard, instructs a motorist before administering a swab, to test for COVID-19 infection in Brooklyn, N.Y., April 20, 2020.

The capacity to monitor is measured by the ability for an installation and its local public health authorities to contact, trace, and monitor symptoms of someone who has COVID-19. Installation commanders will be required to “report major installation status” to the Army’s COVID-19 Crisis Action Team each Tuesday afternoon, the documents state.

As of Wednesday, there was a cumulative total of 2,581 cases of COVID-19 within the Department of the Army, including 1,259 soldiers. The Defense Department has a total of 8,764 cases — including 5,820 cases among service members.

While Army life may resume for many soldiers, others at increased risk for COVID-19 may be working from home for some time. Commanders should “identify those within their command who are at increased risk of an adverse outcome if they were infected with COVID-19,” such as people over 60, and people with compromised immune systems or heart and lung function, according to the documents, which add that commanders should seek medical guidance over additional risk mitigation measures for this population.

In March, the Pentagon elevated the health protection level for all military installations around the world to “Charlie,” which strictly limited access in order to help slow the spread of the virus. Esper’s memo says that in order for commanders to ease restrictions, they have to get their decision reviewed by “the next higher commander in the chain of command.”

The memo also says that commanders should be taking into consideration local conditions, and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as collaborating with local and state authorities.

On Monday, U.S. Forces Korea announced it would be re-classifying most areas as HPCON Bravo after measures put in place were proven to be effective in suppressing the spread of the virus. As of Wednesday, people are allowed to shop and engage in outdoor activities, as well as eat at restaurants — though social distancing, and masks when distancing is not possible, will still be in use.

Esper’s memo says commanders can move to HPCON Bravo if sustained transmission of the virus “is no longer evident, but there remains evidence of continued COVID-19 transmission in the local community.”

Under that classification, vulnerable individuals should continue to shelter in place, and teleworking should be encouraged “whenever possible and feasible.” Venues like churches, gyms, and movie theaters are allowed to open, while adhering to social distancing protocols, and elective surgeries are allowed to resume. 

Update: This story has been updated with information from an Army official.