After a summer lull in new COVID infections, the significantly more-contagious Delta variant of the virus sent cases upwards across most of the United States.
As of Aug. 30, the daily number of new cases, which had been in single digits for months, had risen to an average of 91 per day in Yuma County, Ariz.
Like the majority of Army installations at present, Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) is now at health Protection Condition (HPCON) Bravo.
“We made a change in policy,” said Col. Patrick McFall, YPG Commander. “We were unmasked if you were indoors or riding in cars if you were vaccinated: now, regardless of vaccination status, you will be masked when indoors or riding in a car with another person.”
The COVID mitigation measures apply to everybody.
“HPCON Bravo and the mask policy applies to anybody who comes on this post,” said McFall. “If you make a decision to come on this post, you will comply with those policies: that applies to tenant units.”
Though the health condition has changed on post, post life continues mostly as it has in recent times. Facilities that were closed during the worst days of the pandemic, such as fitness facilities and restaurants, remain open for business with mitigation measures in place.
“Bravo does not take away the use of the fitness facilities or gym,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Herbert Gill. “We just need to make sure we are wearing our masks in the gym and cleaning up after ourselves. In order to prevent the spread of COVID, we are going to have to make sure that we maintain safety and cleanliness at all times.”
Even after 18 months in a COVID environment that has claimed 630,000 American lives, two pieces of misinformation persist: that COVID-19 is equivalent to seasonal influenza in terms of threat, and that the rapidly-developed COVID vaccines that are messenger ribonucleic acids (mRNA)-based are risky ‘experimental gene therapy.’
In 2017-18, the worst flu season of the past decade, 61,000 Americans died of influenza. The average annual death rate from influenza during that same period was 36,000.
“COVID is a novel virus that is pandemic: it is new, and seen across the world,” said Col. Luis Rivero, Deputy Commander for Clinical Services at Fort Irwin, California’s Weed Army Community Hospital, which oversees YPG’s Health Clinic. “Seasonal flu at this point will be sporadic: a peak here or surge there, but not to the degree of having a persistent worldwide effect.”
Though they are the first of their kind to reach the mass market, scientists have been exploring mRNA as a means for producing vaccines for nearly 30 years. The anti-COVID vaccines teach the body to recognize COVID’s ‘spike’ proteins, causing an immune response and creating antibodies to counter them. Two versions of mRNA vaccines—one manufactured by Moderna, one by Pfizer-- have been approved in the United States so far. The vaccines do not contain a live virus, never enter the cell nucleus, and do not interact with a person’s DNA.
“It’s messenger RNA that they are putting into you,” explained Maj. Ashley Aiton, Officer in Charge of the YPG Health Clinic. “It doesn’t go into the center of the cell where the DNA is housed, it’s sending a message just for spike proteins so your body recognizes them. It’s not going to change your genetic makeup.”
The vaccines cannot cause COVID-19, and there is substantial evidence that they prevent COVID infection. Additionally, instances of so-called ‘breakthrough’ infections in individuals who have received the vaccine tend to be less severe than what is experienced by those who are not vaccinated.
“Our experience in Yuma, where I’m stationed at Fort Irwin, and across Army installations is that even if you have a breakthrough infection, the vaccine is helpful in terms of reducing the length of the illness and the severity of the symptoms you experience,” said Rivero.
As of Aug. 27, 49 of the 58 hospitalized COVID patients in Yuma County—84%-- were unvaccinated. Doctors note that the recent spike in COVID cases is resulting in far fewer hospitalizations than during the peak in December of last year.
“Looking at trends in the local area, while cases might be going up, the number of people hospitalized or dying are not spiking to the same extent as before,” said Aiton. “The spike among the hospitalized is definitely among non-vaccinated versus vaccinated people, in both intensive care and regular beds.”
For those who have yet to get a vaccine, they are now widely available at local pharmacies, as well as the Yuma County Health Department and YPG Health Clinic. In addition to the granting full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, FDA officials have recently authorized a third ‘booster’ immunization for people who are severely immunocompromised.
An acute concern among the workforce was the effects the Delta variant of COVID could have on children under 12, who remain ineligible to receive COVID immunizations. YPG’s leadership points out that significant safeguards exist in all of YPG’s on-post childcare centers.
“We follow Center for Disease Control measures in all of our facilities,” said Ron James Garrison Manager. “The Child Development Center and CYS are strictly regulated: there are health inspections regularly and higher cleanliness standards. We have a very regimented process for those facilities that has been amplified due to COVID.”
Decisions regarding whether or not to temporarily close a childcare facility are carefully considered.
“It isn’t any one person that says to close or open or consolidate a facility: it is a group of the medical professionals, the CYS professionals, and the commander,” said James. “We get the team involved to make wise decisions that are best for our children and our families.”
James observed that the surest way adults can protect vulnerable children is by adhering to Centers for Disease Control guidance and Army policy.
“We can help the children by staying masked ourselves,” said James. “If there is a roof over your head and you are not in a private residence, you should have a mask on.”
“The Army is taking this extremely seriously, and we are taking this seriously,” added McFall. “I know it’s not comfortable in this weather in a mask, but we’re protecting national security. We’re protecting our greatest asset, which is you.”