FORT BENNING, Ga. – New recruits and others arriving here for training will first be screened for the COVID-19 virus, and if need be quarantined, as a precaution against its spread, Fort Benning's top commander told an online audience this week.
In addition, those arriving from those states especially hard-hit by COVID-19 may where warranted be placed in 14-day quarantine, said Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, and Fort Benning.
Those and other measures were announced March 24 during an online COVID-19 town hall live-streamed on Facebook. Appearing with Brito during the live-stream were Col. Matthew Scalia, commander, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Col. Melissa J. Hoffman, commander, Martin Army Community Hospital.
The MCoE trains some 69,000 military personnel each year, including thousands of new recruits slated for service with the Infantry and Armor branches, as well as those who train for a variety of other military specialties, including, among others, paratroopers, Rangers, and snipers.
In addition to screening new arrivals, Fort Benning has made plans to, house and otherwise support the well-being of Soldiers who graduate from training but find themselves in "holdover" status – unable for the time being to leave here for their next assignments under the Pentagon's COVID-19 travel ban. The current ban is in effect through May 11, Brito reminded the live-stream audience.
Also during the town hall, officials announced they've done the following:
• Set up a COVID-19 phone hotline.
• Set aside a one-hour period each morning during which only those who are seen as high-risk for COVID-19 infection under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines will be able to shop for groceries and other items. After that hour, all other shoppers will be admitted.
Despite the changes being made because of COVID-19, the "Army's mission" at Fort Benning would continue, Brito said.
"Fort Benning is one of many places that continues to train thousands and thousands of Soldiers annually," said Brito. "We're gonna continue to train. In broad terms, the Army's mission will not stop. It can't stop."
Those trained would include the young Infantry and Armor recruits, "the young men and women that the parents have entrusted to join the Army and taken an oath," said Brito. "They will report here at Fort Benning as well, although perhaps in smaller numbers over the next couple of months.
New Soldiers arriving for duty at Fort Benning will first be screened at those places where they board transportation, be it bus, train or plane, said Brito, and will be asked a series of questions, including whether they've been to any countries or states hard-hit by COVID-19.
"'Have you been to one of those countries?' 'Are you in a heavily-impacted state?' 'How do you feel right now?' 'Let me take your temperature,'" Brito said. "And that's the initial level of screening."
Moreover, members of Fort Benning's reception battalion is repeating the screenings when Soldiers arrive at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"And when that Soldier moves on, has the approval to move on to Fort Benning, again," he said, "whether at the airport or before they enter the training footprint, the reception battalion, we conduct another level of screening through the questions I just mentioned, a temperature check, and seeing how he or she feels, before they enter the formation," Brito said.
Brito has also given commanders of the Fort Benning's training brigades authority to decide whether to quarantine a new arrival if they've come from a state "heavily hit" by COVID-19, like, for example, New York state.
"We can make the call for when a person shows up and they may be coming from one of those states that is heavily hit, like New York state at this time, and move he or she directly from their mode of transportation after their screening, to a safe quarantine location, to ensure that we minimize the risk of any COVID-19 spreads," Brito said.
"Especially for those Soldiers who may not be showing any symptoms whatsoever but may be comin' from one of those states or areas that shows more risk," said Brito.
Brito also outlined steps taken to accommodate Soldiers who must remain here until the travel ban is lifted.
"That travel ban is not allowing Soldiers that are here on what's called a Permanent Change of Station – PCS orders – to move," Brito told the online audience. "We will offer opportunities, one, for them to continue to train and hone their skills here at Fort Benning, take care of them, shelter down, and minimize any risk they have to the virus."
Noting that Fort Benning "is a big place," Brito said officials here "have actually gone to the level of detail of counting every single bunk and where they could put Soldiers as they graduate."
That count was not confined to the post's two main training areas, but has included other areas of the post.
"We know exactly where the beds are, how much space we have now, and how much space could be used for graduating Soldiers," Brito said.
"So almost to the pillow I know where the guys, guys and girls, young Soldiers, can sleep safely, cleanly, and in a healthy environment, upon graduation."
Officials have also pinpointed some places where they can construct additional "holdover space" if needed, Brito said.
Hoffman, the hospital commander, updated the audience on medical matters.
Those wanting health-related information can continue to call the Nurse Advice Line: 1-800-874-2273, select option 1," said Hoffman.
But they can now also call the hospital's new COVID-19 hotline, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at: 762-408-2819.
Additional health care information is available on the hospital's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Martin-Army-Community-Hospital-106090889433774/ .
Hoffman also described the "pre-screening" the hospital now requires for those wanting to enter the facilities "to cut down on foot traffic throughout the hospital and to ensure the safety of all our patients and our staff."
"We continue to screen everyone presenting for care at every facility across the Martin footprint," she said. "We have set up a pre-screening area for all, to include our staff, prior to entering the main facility.
"The screening," said Hoffman, "includes answering the following questions: Why are you here today? Are you here for an appointment or are you sick? If you are sick and you need to be seen in our ER, you will be expedited to the rear of the tent for additional screening. Have you had contact with a COVID-19-infected person? Or have you had any recent travel, especially to those areas that have been identified as high-risk by the CDC? And lastly, of course: Do you have a temperature, a cough, are you experiencing shortness of breath, or a sore throat?
"You will then have your temperature taken, and based on all the above questions, you'll be directed to enter the main hospital through the ER entrance, or you'll be directed to the rear for additional screening," Hoffman said.
"Again, anyone who doesn't have a need to seek care in person is advised to stay home," she said. "If you're not feeling well, have questions, or your symptoms worsen, we advise you to please call our Nurse Advice Line."
Besides the pre-screening, the hospital has placed certain limits on visitors, Hoffman said.
"We are not allowing visitors to our in-patient areas or additional persons to accompany the patient for an appointment," she said. "Exceptions are being considered for our pregnant and new moms, pediatric patients and our elderly or handicapped, on a case-by-case basis.
Brito said that while medical efforts are focused intensely on the COVID-19 threat, he's directed that medical staff stay in readiness to nevertheless handle the many other medical needs that may occur at a post like Fort Benning.
"I've also asked the hospital staff to do some very deliberate planning to preserve their ability to deal with COVID-19 issues – if they should expand – but also be able to take care of the stuff that just happens," Brito said.
"So, moms having babies, that happens," he said. "To all the moms and dads that are out there that have Soldiers going through One-Station Unit Training, Soldiers hurt their ankles and other things. That still happens.
"So I've asked them, both at Martin Army Hospital and our treatment facilities, to maintain that capability to take care of our troops."
On the matter of special shopping hours for high-risk persons, Scalia gave the audience details.
"If you're age 65 years or older, you have a chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, or if you're pregnant," the special hours apply, Scalia said. "And there are some other categories. That's just a few. But want to take care of that population.
"We're going to reserve shopping time for them at the commissary and PX main store every day between nine and 10," said Scalia. "Now they can shop any hour it's open, but we'll restrict access for them between nine and 10 in the morning.
"This allows them greater protection, as they are higher risk population, again as described by the CDC," he said.
A new measure has also been adopted to protect Fort Benning's housing staff, Scalia said. Fort Benning has adopted a new policy under which residents of Family housing must notify authorities if they're quarantined.
"We've had some concerns with some self-quarantined families who reside here in Fort Benning, not informing work force – maintenance workers – as they're coming in and continue to come in, for urgent and emergency work orders," Scalia said.
"This policy states that it is the family's responsibility to report their self-quarantine," to the garrison's Housing office, he said.
"If you have an emergency work order, if you have a busted pipe or some other emergency that has to be taken care of, they will respond, but they need to do so with the right equipment and properly prepared," Scalia said.
Brito said Fort Benning will continue to be "transparent" about COVID-19, reporting any cases to the Georgia Department of Public Health, and divulging the appropriate set of facts within the privacy limits of the federal law known as HIPPA, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"HIPPA is the law, and we're not gonna violate the law," said Brito.
"When we have a known case associated with Fort Benning, whether he or she, that person is a civilian, Soldier, family member, and we will tell you whether they live off-post, like we have in the previous cases, or whether they live on-post.
"But in accordance with the law, which we're not gonna violate, there are some things that I will not – quite simply won't – talk to," he said. "Like providing the actual name of the person, their gender, their address.
"So please understand that's very important to protect the person that has been identified as a positive case, or just screened. No different than we would for anybody that comes into our hospital or any other hospital, for any other medical case.
"So I do please ask for your understanding and your support on that. We will be as transparent as we can."
Fort Benning will hold the COVID-19 online forum weekly, Brito said during the live-stream, which was the second held since an initial, 90-minute Facebook live-stream March 17.
The next online town hall will be live streamed March 31, a Tuesday, from 6 p.m. - 7 p.m.
Officials will also in the future be posting video clips online that cover certain key topics deemed of interest to the Fort Benning community during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brito told the online audience.
A video of the March 24 town hall can be viewed online at:
Also online is Fort Benning’s COVID 19 Forum page: