Military chiefs at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson declared a public health emergency on Friday and urged staff to avoid areas off the base that do not require masks or social distancing, given the growing number High COVID-19 cases and strained hospital capacity in south-central Alaska.
“This statement reflects the continuing reality that JBER is experiencing sustained community transmission of COVID-19,” said Air Force Col. Kirsten Aguilar, 673d Air Base Wing and Commander JBER, in a prepared statement. “It will remain in effect for 30 days, but can be extended or shortened depending on conditions.”
The base moved to Bravo health protection condition. The change means Aguilar has more authority to take action 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 staff on Friday, Lt. Gen. David Krumm, a senior military commander responsible for the air force in Alaska and the homeland defense mission for the state, said most exposures to the virus among the military occur off JBER.
“Unfortunately, the lack of off-base mitigation has resulted in alarming rates of infection, hospitalizations and deaths in our community,” Krumm wrote. “The current cases of COVID on JBER have not yet reached the point of compromising our preparedness, but they are increasing, and our data indicates that off-base exposure is the primary source of infection for our military personnel and their families. “
Although the base does not apply any immediate restrictions, Krumm said he is asking service members and families to avoid facilities that do not require masks, physical distancing and other mitigation measures.
At this time, neither Anchorage nor the Mat-Su have in place mask requirements or capacity restrictions for businesses or gatherings. In Anchorage, Mayor Dave Bronson continued to refuse to take such action.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Anchorage and statewide have risen sharply in an outbreak brought on by the highly contagious delta variant. Alaska recorded the nation’s third-highest COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people in the past two weeks on Friday.
[Alaska is now 3rd in the nation for highest case rate as state reports nearly 900 cases and 1 death Friday]
The situation has become 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 staff and capacity.
The Department of Defense and federal facilities like JBER require masking and social distancing at all indoor facilities if they are located in a high transmission area, Krumm said.
Krumm said restrictions, like those adopted by JBER in October 2020 that prevented service members from visiting certain off-base facilities, could be enacted if there is no improvement soon.
“It’s a message to our military and their families that we should be doing it on purpose just to help our community and help the force,” Krumm said in an interview on Friday. “Also, to let them know that if the situation worsens, we will do absolutely everything in our power to protect the force.”
All members of the Department of Defense departments 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% vaccine coverage.
“We always encourage everyone who is eligible for the vaccine to take it as soon as possible,” Krumm said. “We have a lot of vaccines available. And we have an open door policy for anyone here on base to come in and get the shot. “