Fort Knox leaders hosted a COVID-19 town hall Sept. 1, 2021, which was streamed live on social media. A variety of topics included mask mandates, the delta variant, what vaccinations are available, and how they’re being administered.
Fort Knox leaders hosted a COVID-19 town hall Sept. 1, 2021, which was streamed live on social media. A variety of topics included mask mandates, the delta variant, what vaccinations are available, and how they’re being administered. (Photo Credit: Jenn DeHaan, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

Fort Knox, Ky. – Installation leaders and Fort Knox medical professionals hosted a live-streamed Facebook town hall meeting Sept. 1 to address community questions regarding the latest COVID-19 guidelines and recent vaccine mandates for service members.

With several changes occurring over the past several months, Chief of the Department of Preventive Medicine Dr. James Stephens, along with U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox Commander Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis and other post leaders talked about a variety of topics to include mask mandates, the delta variant, available vaccinations, and how they’re being administered.

Davis told a virtual audience, which reached over 3,000 within a day, that he understands some may have questions about the current state of things.

“We didn’t get to this point overnight,” said Davis. “It’s been 18 months plus of pain and a lot of changes in our great nation, especially within the Army. We’re going to do this right, we’re going to do this professionally, and we’re going to ensure we educate and that we take all the necessary steps for each and every one of our men and women in uniform and their Families.”

Stephens echoed Davis, pointing out that the numbers say it all.

“Across the world, we’ve had over 219 million cases with over 4.5 million deaths,” said Stephens. “In the United States, we’ve had over 40 million cases with over 660,000 deaths.”

Davis said just this week, Fort Knox received 5,800 doses of the recently FDA-approved Pfizer vaccine. The installation also has over 2,000 Moderna and about 500 Johnson and Johnson doses remaining.

According to Col. Caryn Vernon, commander of Ireland Army Health Clinic and Fort Knox Medical Activity, the Pfizer doses are currently being prioritized for service members. In the meantime, Family members, retirees, civilians and other community members can still make appointments to receive the other two available vaccines.

“The health and wellbeing of the Fort Knox community is a readiness issue,” said Vernon. “After service members receive their vaccinations, we will then begin vaccinations of our civilians, contractors and beneficiaries who are interested in receiving the Pfizer vaccine. It is FDA approved for those that are 16 years of age or older, and remains in an emergency use authorization for those 12 to 15 years of age.”

Vernon explained leaders are currently working on putting out guidance on how commands will be instructed to handle medical and administrative – to include religious – exemptions. She said once the mandatory vaccinations begin, Fort Knox will provide a medical provider and chaplain on site to help answer questions service members may have.

During the question-and-answer section of the town hall, Vernon stated guidance is still pending regarding mandated vaccines for Department of the Army civilians.

However, anyone mandated to receive a vaccine will also be required to show proof. Vernon emphasized that a requirement to show proof does not violate the HIPPA Act.

“[The Act] does contain an exception for military readiness and public health emergencies,” said Vernon. “It allows commanders to utilize the ability to check on the status of vaccine records in order to protect the installation.

“While we must protect personally identifiable information, simply asking an individual for their vaccine status or to look at their card violates no laws.”

Stephens also addressed several questions about installation mask mandates during the session. He said the biggest reason for their implementation is the delta variant.

“The problem is the fact that it is two times as infective as all the other variants,” said Stephens. “It can actually cause two times the amount of viral load. With that double amount, you have double the severity and also double the amount of virus particles that you’re breathing out.”

With delta variant numbers on the rise, Stephens said mandating masks indoors became a necessary precaution again, despite the release of the vaccine.

“I understand. With the vaccine, we were hoping to get rid of the masks. That was one of the biggest hopes,” said Stephens. “The problem with the delta variant is even if you’re vaccinated, you can still catch this virus, just like with the flu.

“The vaccine keeps your body from overreacting or the virus causing a severe illness, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus and may pass it to others.”

Stephens said it’s about adding a level of safety.

“Masks were never touted as the end-all protection,” said Stephens. “It was merely one tool in our arsenal of social distancing, hygiene, washing hands, staying home if you’re sick, and masking to decrease the spread of this virus.”

Because those who have not yet received the vaccine may have concerns about potential side effects, Stephens explained it’s common to feel ill following most immunizations. He also said cases of specific types of illnesses such as Bell’s Palsy, which appeared in seven out of 75,000 vaccination cases studied, were determined to have no direct link to the vaccine.

Stephens said he’s asking the community to do a few specific things when seeking information:

“Look at the facts, look at the safety margin, and not just talk to other people,” said Stephens. “The vaccine is extremely safe, especially when you compare it to the chances of the infection and the side effects of the infection itself. Stop listening to the myths, look at your own data, look at the science; please make the right decision, and let’s get vaccinated.”

Throughout the entire town hall, the main messages were to encourage the community to always ask questions, continue to seek the latest information, and follow CDC safety guidelines. Davis said so far, everyone has been doing a wonderful job, and he plans to continue putting the community first.

“Since coming on board, I look at the responsibility of safety, but I also look at the responsibility of good order and discipline,” said Davis. “The whole point is, I want to make sure we take care of all of these great Soldiers and their Families, and I will do so because that’s what drives me to serve each and every one of you.”

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Editor’s note: Vaccination site dates for the month of September are the 9th, 16th, 24th and 30th and open to the general Fort Knox community. Call 502-626-SHOT to make an appointment. There are 150 available appointments on each date.