By Sig Christenson, Staff writer
As the threat of coronavirus came into focus a year ago, the Air Force scrambled to figure out how to continue basic military training in San Antonio.
The stakes were high.
The virus threatened to sicken large numbers of recruits at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and even halt the service’s ability to bring in new airmen.
The plan the Air Education and Training Command put in place in mid-March walled off new arrivals from others on the base. They waited two weeks to start regular training and those who tested positive or became ill with the virus were shunted into quarantine, along with others identified by contact tracing.
The result: In just under 11 months, the Air Force graduated 27,486 recruits. That was down from 37,000 in the 2019 fiscal year. But there were no hospitalizations or deaths among the fraction who turned up positive for the coronavirus — 1,604 recruits from March 15, 2020, through Feb. 8 of this year.
In rare cases, entire “flights” containing dozens of recruits were pulled aside and isolated. But the individual cases of COVID-19 never turned into outbreaks. The on-time graduation rate now rests at 96 percent.
“It’s incredibly important and yes, I am really proud of that because again, at the beginning, when there were unknowns we had some risks and we knew how important graduating and producing the next generation of airmen … was,” Maj. Gen. John DeGoes, commander of the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland, said of the graduation rate.
“And so, yes, I am incredibly proud.”
There have been hiccups, a couple of them potentially serious.
Just a day before a basic training graduation ceremony early in February, two flights were placed into isolation due to potential exposure to the virus. They had completed training but had to stay in isolation for 14 days, finally graduating on Feb. 18.
A third flight had to be quarantined immediately following graduation. The newly minted airmen will move on to technical training when they get out.
Putting new flights into “restriction of movement” on arrival, repeatedly screening recruits beforehand with questionnaires and a “culture of safety to identify early mild symptoms” has worked, DeGoes said, “but is not perfect.”
Air Force basic training has survived — something that was by no means certain when the pandemic hit.
A major coronavirus outbreak at Lackland, long the home of Air Force basic training, could have crimped the flow of graduates or even closed the pipeline of recruits coming to the base, a fate that briefly befell basic training for the Navy and Marines in early April.
It could have jeopardized the Air Force’s ability to fill critical career fields, raising the specter of drastic actions such as Stop-Loss, a highly unpopular personnel tool that prevents veteran troops from leaving the services.
The Air Force hedged its bets, opening a second basic training facility at Keesler AFB, Miss., which graduated around 1,000 airmen over six months by the time it closed Nov. 6.
By then, officials knew Lackland’s protocols were working.
Everything starts with tests, masks and social distancing. Recruits in every stage of basic training wear them — black for those free of the virus, and white for those who’ve tested positive or are sick.
Before coronavirus, recruits arriving at San Antonio International Airport boarded buses and began “Zero Week,” a time reserved for ritual haircuts, shots and issuing uniforms. They still get the haircuts, but have already taken coronavirus tests at Military Entrance Processing Stations nationwide, where they are inducted into service.
They’re screened at the airport by medical technicians, and again when mustering at Lackland’s Pfingston Reception Center. They’re told to immediately report if they’re feeling ill, which is a big shift in attitude. Fearing they would not graduate with their class, a dreaded fate often called being “washed back” or “recycled,” recruits in the past often would power through basic training even if they were sick.
“We realized early on that the readiness of the Air Force depends on keeping the recruiting and training pipelines open and running safely,” Lt. Gen. Brad Webb said, crediting resourceful airmen with sustaining recruiting, training and education. “Leaders at every level looked at how to continue fighting through but do it safely for our people and the communities where we serve.”
Perhaps the two biggest changes in basic training were the introduction of the restriction-of-movement flights, dubbed ROM, and a shorter instructional period — 7½ weeks instead of 8½.
ROM flights haven’t been a cure-all. “Occasionally,” DeGoes said, some cases have occurred post-ROM.
Contact tracing nonetheless has made it possible to pinpoint individuals with the virus who got past initial screenings and tests. They are isolated at the Gateway Inn or Gateway Villas, dorms converted from hotels on the sprawling base.
Case No. 1, a recruit from Kentucky, developed symptoms on March 22 after flying to San Antonio with a fellow trainee who boarded the plane in Chicago.
Six days later, the young man who boarded in Chicago fell ill. Called Case No. 4, he had been in quarantine in a private room all week and hadn’t exposed anybody else.
Yet if not for contact tracing, others could have caused a chain reaction, infecting many rather than a few.
“If we hadn’t done the quarantine right, if we hadn’t had public health go and see, who did No. 1 come in contact with, we could be having an outbreak with literally dozens, up to 100 even,” DeGoes said in a prior interview.
The flights themselves are a little smaller than those of the past, no more than 40 recruits who sleep head to toe, 12 feet apart. Recruits wash their hands at least five times a day and carry sanitizer wherever they go.
The number of people showering, shaving and brushing their teeth at one time has been reduced as well, and training instructors are no longer allowed in the dorm while trainees are cleaning up.
Classes are usually held in the dorm, in places like day rooms where the recruits can spread out. They used to march from their dorms to religious services on Sundays, but no more. Chaplains appear in the day room on video monitors, with 11 recruits allowed to attend at one time.
They eat meals, undergo limited physical training and learn basic drill procedures in the dorm, except for when they’re sent to the nearby Medina Annex for days-long field exercises late in their training cycle.
In formation on a drill pad under the second floor of the dorm, they maintain a distance of 6 feet
“I was just coming in when they started to implement all of these measures,” said Tech Sgt. Mikesha Jones, a military training instructor with the 433rd Training Squadron. “It was very intense and it was somewhat difficult trying to ensure that all the protocols were put in place, and they were training all the instructors to ensure we knew exactly what we needed to do in order to keep ourselves safe as well as the trainees safe.”
DeGoes began thinking of how to craft a coronavirus response in January, when reports of outbreaks in China were followed by Americans returning from that country, including cruise ship passengers, being quarantined at Lackland under a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mission advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Honestly, we began thinking about it when we had the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess and even before that the Wuhan, China, American citizens who were quarantined on the base over at the Gateway Villas,” he said. “And so we saw that up close and personal, and the use of quarantine and what they were doing, and began incorporating the emerging, and what I’d call evolving, brand-new infection that we didn’t know very much about.”
DeGoes, an internal medicine specialist who had studied the ebola and zika viruses and influenza pandemic planning while assigned to a previous command, met with Webb and others March 13 to discuss a COVID-19 game plan.
He said he offered “medical recommendations about how we could do this and do it safely, and would watch it close enough that we would have a plan that if we crossed a red line we would recommend slowing or potentially even stopping training.”
By March 15, the plan was in place, along with the first ROM flight. There have been 30 cohorts of recruits since, ranging from 400 to 450 graduates early in the pandemic, roughly half the size of pre-COVID basic training classes, to more than 700 graduating at a time in more recent weeks.