Military leaders on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson declared a public health emergency Friday and urged personnel to avoid off-base places that do not require masking or social distancing, given the increasingly high COVID-19 case counts and strained hospital capacity in Southcentral Alaska.
“This declaration reflects the continued reality that JBER is experiencing sustained community transmission of COVID-19,” Air Force Col. Kirsten Aguilar, 673d Air Base Wing and JBER commander, said in a prepared statement. “It will remain in effect for 30 days, but may be extended or shortened based on conditions.”
The base has moved into Health Protection Condition Bravo. The change means Aguilar has more authority to take actions that would protect the base against COVID-19.
“If the situation continues to worsen, additional measures to protect the force will be implemented, including restricting access to off-base establishments,” JBER officials said in a statement.
In a letter sent to personnel Friday, Lt. Gen. David Krumm, a senior military commander responsible for Air Force forces in Alaska and the homeland defense mission for the state, said that most exposures to the virus among service members are happening off JBER.
“Unfortunately, the lack of mitigation measures off-base has resulted in alarmingly high infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths in our community,” Krumm wrote. “Current COVID cases on JBER have not yet reached the point of jeopardizing our readiness, but they are rising, and our data is that off-base exposure is the primary source of infection for our service members and their families.”
While the base is not implementing any immediate restrictions, Krumm said he is asking military members and families to avoid facilities that do not require masks, physical distancing and other mitigation measures.
At the moment, neither Anchorage nor the Mat-Su have mask requirements or capacity restrictions for businesses or gatherings in place. In Anchorage, Mayor Dave Bronson has continued to decline pursuing such measures.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Anchorage and statewide have risen sharply in a surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant. Alaska on Friday had the nation’s third highest COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.
The situation has grown so dire that the state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, this week began rationing care under crisis-care protocols. Other hospitals in the city and state are reporting similar levels of stress on staffing and capacity.
Department of Defense and federal installations, like JBER, require masking and social distancing in all indoor facilities if they’re located in an area of high transmission, Krumm said.
Krumm said restrictions, like the ones JBER enacted in October 2020 that prevented service members from visiting certain off-base establishments, could be enacted if there isn’t improvement soon.
“This is a message to our service members and their families that we should do this voluntarily just to help out our community and to help out the force,” Krumm said in an interview Friday. “Also, to let them have notice that should it get worse, we will absolutely do whatever we have to to protect the force.”
All Department of Defense service members are required to receive the FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, and Krumm said in an interview that the Air Force unit on JBER is approaching 95% vaccination coverage.
“We always encourage everyone who is eligible for the vaccine to take it as soon as possible,” Krumm said. “We have plenty of vaccines available. And we have an open door policy for anyone here on base to come get their vaccines.”