For the first time since 1943, during the peak of World War II, West Point is hosting the Army-Navy Game Saturday and not the expected location of Philadelphia due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During home games this season at Michie Stadium, the Corps of Cadets were the only individuals allowed in the stadium seating area. However, for the Army-Navy Game, outside of VIPs, the addition of another 4,000-plus group will occupy the stadium seating as the Brigade of Midshipmen from Annapolis, Maryland, will travel by busloads to the U.S. Military Academy.
With the circumstance of a big collection of people arriving at West Point, the job of working and maintaining the COVID-19 risk mitigation measures fall on the shoulders of the West Point Public Health team.
Maj. Andrew Bigelow, chief of West Point Public Health, has worked closely with the Public Health team at the U.S. Naval Academy these past few weeks as they both attempt to minimize the spread of COVID-19 prior to the Army-Navy Game.
“We have been extremely successful throughout the course of the football season of mitigating the risk of COVID-19 with our proven strategies that are centered on our non-pharmaceutical interventions to include wearing masks, social distancing and hand hygiene,” Bigelow said. “There are a few added precautions for the Army-Navy Game to include required COVID testing for all individuals who will step foot on the field and strict separation of the USMA and USNA bubbles.”
To date, Bigelow said there has not been one COVID-19 case at USMA related to a transmission that occurred at a home football game.
“That is something the coaching staff, players and community should be extremely prideful of,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow has given the Army West Point football players, staff and coaches high marks for taking ownership this season in the COVID-19 fight and implementing the mitigation plan.
“I continue to advise and assist where needed, but I have been extremely impressed with how serious the team and the coaches consider the COVID-19 situation,” Bigelow said. “There is no question what the expectation is when it comes to compliance with the COVID standards (from the team’s perspective).”
Nevertheless, the Army-Navy Game adds an exponential amount of complexity and the need to stick to the strict guidelines that both the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen must adhere to is important in order to maintain good health into their winter break and next semester.
Bigelow explained that within the responsibilities of the West Point Public Health team, it has been monitoring the local (Orange County) COVID-19 conditions as it relates to the Army-Navy Game while effectively communicating the risk mitigation plan.
“We will have a larger Public Health team onsite at the game to conduct inspections and monitor NPI compliance,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow gives kudos to the USNA Public Health team for its work to keep Midshipmen on a healthy path prior to the football game and the expectations while at West Point.
“USNA has a very robust COVID-19 surveillance testing program that they are adhering to,” Bigelow said. “Additionally, the Midshipmen will be expected to abide by the same NPI protocols and rules of engagement as the Corps of Cadets both in the muster area and during the game.”
As part of the Army-Navy Game, both schools are expected to implement and enforce risk mitigation measures provided by the Public Health teams. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes events by lowest, more, higher and highest risks. The “highest risk” constitutes a large in-person gathering where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least six feet apart and attendees travel outside the local area.
With the CDC guidance in mind, some of the following measures below and the individuals it applies to are to help reduce any risk of COVID transmission to an acceptable level for all USMA and USNA personnel:
• Adherence to NCAA COVID-19 testing requirements; PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing and active monitoring.
• Gameday screening; thermal imaging.
• USMA and USNA team cohorts maintain minimal contacts outside their bubbles.
• COVID screening at installation access points via the LiveSafe app.
• Mission essential gameday activities only; no tailgates or unnecessary events.
• Public Health team onsite for food service inspections and NPI monitoring.
Cadets and Midshipmen
• Adherence to NPI standards — including wearing face coverings at all times.
• Avoid mixing of USMA and USNA personnel and USCC cohorts.
• Consolidating near concessions is not authorized.
• Minimum of four seats between each individual in a horizontal direction (six feet).
• Staggered seating in the vertical direction (4-6 feet).
• Limited VIP capacity in the Superintendent’s Loge.
• Minimize food consumption in the seating area.
• Gameday screening (LiveSafe, temperature checks and credentials) at the Foley Center.
• PCR COVID-19 testing required for all on-field personnel within 72 hours of kickoff.
• Strict enforcement of NPI standards.
• Avoidance of Orange County cluster areas for event staff that began Dec. 1.
“Everyone in attendance must be situationally aware that the risk of COVID-19 across the United States and locally, both at USMA and USNA, is greater than ever,” Bigelow said. “We must hold each other accountable to these standards. Additionally, we should avoid the mixing of the USMA and USNA cohorts as much as possible as we close out the semester at both academies.”
As nearly 9,000 people converge at Michie Stadium Saturday, Bigelow does reiterate the importance of individual accountability of the safeguards in place to help avoid any outbreaks that could happen afterward if not personally enforced.
“If all personnel take the individual responsibility to consistently adhere to the established NPI protocols then I have zero concern that the Army-Navy Game will result in a possible COVID cluster or outbreak,” Bigelow said. “Winning against COVID relies on discipline and there is no shortage of that at USMA or USNA. I am fully confident that this will be a COVID-free event if we follow the plan.”
Bigelow has taken a great onus on his shoulders in dealing with a large-scale event that is the Army-Navy Game.
“An event of this magnitude during COVID-19 is obviously a big deal and it is extremely reassuring to see the commitment to public health from the community and leadership on-post,” Bigelow said.
He finds it both rewarding and stressful to take on the task as the public health official, but Bigelow is honored to be a part of the planning process and experience.
“It has been a tremendous leader development experience for myself,” he said. “However, with all that said, I will be extremely happy when Army secures the victory at Michie Stadium and the Corps of Cadets are released for the end of the semester to be with their families for the holidays.”