If there’s one topic Fort Gordon officials wish they would not have to discuss in the present tense, most might agree on COVID. But as the pandemic continues to affect nearly every aspect of life, it remained the focal point of a recent town hall.
The U.S. Cyber Center of Excellence and Fort Gordon hosted a virtual town hall on Jan. 13, led by Brig. Gen. Paul T. Stanton, commanding general. The event served as a platform for key leaders and subject matter experts to provide updates on the current COVID-19 response and various other concerns. There was also an opportunity for the community to ask questions of leadership.
In his opening remarks, Stanton explained the reasoning behind recent changes to the Health Protection Condition, which went from Alpha to Bravo shortly before holiday block leave ended. Those reasons mostly had to do with the spread of omicron, COVID’s newest variant. As a result, everyone must wear a mask while indoors – regardless of vaccination status. Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear a mask while outdoors.
Stanton emphasized that his decisions regarding COVID, to include reinstituting masks, were not made in haste but instead with careful thought and after consulting with medical experts.
“These decisions are made based off of changing conditions and the environment,” he said. “Unfortunately, the spread of COVID right now is running rampant, and so we’re trying to stop its spread … we’re trying to keep each other safe so that we can continue doing our mission while protecting our families.”
Lt. Col. Kevin Doherty, assistant deputy commander of Eisenhower Army Medical Center’s Clinical Services, detailed some of the reasons for heightened safety and preventive measures against omicron. Like all previous variants, omicron came from mutations formed from its predecessor (delta). It is highly transmissible and tends to linger in the upper respiratory system, he explained. And although current vaccines do help protect against omicron, it’s with a lower efficiency than what was seen the delta variant.
“What we’re finding is if you have two doses of the Pfeizer or Moderna vaccine, you still have about 30 percent protection, however, with the booster you can increase that protection to about 50 percent,” Doherty explained. “So, it still does provide protection and it does exactly what it was developed for, and that was to prevent serious illness – so those with the vaccine are not suffering serious illness right now.”
Adding to Doherty’s explanation, Stanton said, “It means it’s spreading like wildfire … it’s staying in our upper respiratory system and when we breathe out, we’re spreading the virus. That’s why we have masks on.”
Offering some lighter news, Fort Gordon Garrison Commander Col. Shaw Pick said that despite concerns, the installation remains “open for business,” but with visible limitations.
“The rule of thumb now is 50 percent capacity in all facilities, so you may see fewer tables at the food court – that is on purpose,” Pick said. “We are spreading people out; we want fewer people gathered in one place at any given time.”
Other services, such as Fort Gordon ID/DEERS, are available by appointment only, while others (certain medical appointments) are taking place virtually.
Col. Heidi P. Mon, EAMC commander, said the hospital’s resources have shifted to better serve beneficiaries during this challenging time. One example is the Influenza-Like-Illness (ILI) Clinic, where patients go to be tested for COVID. The clinic, which has tested more than 3,000 patients since Jan. 2, has expanded its hours to meet demands. For those who want a test outside of the clinic’s normal hours, Mon has an important message.
“During those times when the ILI Clinic is closed, if you think you need a test, we ask you not to go to the Emergency Department,” Mon said. “The volume in the Emergency Department has been increasing exponentially for folks not having emergency conditions, which unfortunately increases wait times.”
In closing, Stanton asked that the community continue to be patient and thanked everyone for their flexibility and understanding.
“We are making decisions based on changing conditions,” Stanton said. “This particular variant is truly spreading very quickly, and we have to do what’s necessary to protect ourselves to ensure our readiness, to protect our mission, and to ensure the health and safety of our friends and family.”
Visit the Fort Gordon Facebook page for footage of the town hall.