USAG-KA Commander Addresses Community
USAG-KA Commander Col. Tom Pugsley shared updates and information about changing quarantine and travel protocols for the Republic of the Marshall Islands at a Kwajalein community town hall at the Island Memorial Chapel July 15, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Jessica Dambruch) (Photo Credit: Jessica Dambruch) VIEW ORIGINAL

Please share with us your family's own experience with COVID-19.

When COVID hit, I was in Pennsylvania attending the U.S. Army War College. In hindsight, there were a lot of overreactions. For me, life under COVID was a lot of staying at home with my family and finding new, inventive ways to keep the kids entertained.

The school year ended after spring break. We did not make a lot of restaurant visits or store trips. Early on, I went to the store once every 10 days wearing gloves and a mask. I would do shopping—not purchasing toilet paper because there was none to be found—and I would come back and get hosed down outside by the wife.

Over the next year to 18 months, life under COVID became, “Hey, reduce your large gatherings and don’t hang out.” We managed with half our workforce at my duty station in South Carolina for 50 percent of the time. When you have half your workforce out, you’re not getting after your true mission.

I joked at the July 15 town hall that you could be standing at a hand-washing station and see two or three other hand sanitizer stations. They were everywhere. You got used to that.

Then, I came to Kwajalein and got used to shaking hands again. My first handshake in over a year and a half was on the day I was released from island quarantine.

For people who did not go off-island during COVID-19, living with it on Kwajalein will be interesting. My hope is that we avoid overreactions. Just because that’s what many of us lived two years ago doesn’t mean that’s what we must live now. Life in the United States changed, but later allowed for activities like movies and visiting restaurants to continue with adjusted requirements and spaced seating.

Life became thoughtful: “If you’re outside, that’s okay. Be cognizant of where you are. If you’re in small, enclosed spaces, consider wearing a mask and wash your hands.”

Often, it’s those simple things that are probably going to be sufficient to allow us to get through COVID with the least amount of impact to our lives and operations. I guarantee we’ll be happier for it. It’s hard to lock yourself into your house for a year and to not allow your kids to go play with other kids.

You cannot avoid something that’s largely inevitable. You can just learn to live with it, to try to make your peace with it, and to get the best out of it you can. That’s probably all we can hope to do.

Please discuss what our community can expect in the coming weeks.

At some point, the Marshall Islands’ borders will open, though even with reduced restrictions on quarantine and restrictions on movement, it’s inevitable that COVID will enter the country.

We all knew it was coming. We now have a more informed idea of when: after October, when the border and quarantine restrictions relax.

Leading up to that, we need to focus on planning, preparation and messaging. In the next few weeks, the community will see an increase in active messaging campaigns in The Kwajalein Hourglass, on the radio and on the AFN roller channel to inform the community about things to do to prepare.

Most of the contractors and the garrison are going to be heavily involved in weekly meetings in which we’re to prepare the community for the introduction of COVID into the into the RMI.

What additional measures would you recommend that we assume to begin to individually prepare?

The foundational level for planning is personal or family-level preparation. The first and the most important thing any resident or community member can do is to get vaccinated. We still have a large portion of the community that is not vaccinated and there are plenty of vaccines. We need to get them scheduled and get them done.

The second thing you can do is start planning. Have conversations with your family members about things like taking advantage of the free at-home antigen tests that anyone can order. The link is provided in community messaging. I’ve done it myself and ordered 16 tests in 45 seconds.

Do you have masks and hand sanitizer available? If not, purchase them. Reinforce the importance of good personal hygiene practices with your little ones, like washing your hands multiple times per day, and being careful about what you touch.

I’m not saying stop shaking hands, but if you do shake hands, make sure you keep some hand sanitizer with you. Wash your hands before eating. Look at these things, pay attention to it and take heart.

COVID is something almost every country including the United States has gone through. They had two years to figure it out. We have almost three months to prepare. Let’s take advantage of that time and those lessons learned and set the best possible conditions for us to get through this together. Let’s set conditions to work through and to fight through the inevitability of COVID entering this country, and get us through it as fast as possible, with the least amount of impact to operations here in the community.

Please share with us any developing contingency plans surrounding essential services personnel if they get COVID.

My team is in discussion with island contractors as well as tenant and our partner organizations here on the island trying to figure out how we maintain mission operations and continue in the face of community spread.

We must prioritize our critical services. Next, it’s the minimal planning to meet requirements. How do we continue services like waste management and fire services in the face of COVID? That’s what “we’re really scared of,” right? One firefighter gets COVID, and we must isolate them and keep them away from the rest. This is all being planned now.

Many Army organizations just shut down during the initial pandemic. We do not have option. We must continue to maintain the mission. We must find a way in which to fight through.

You can probably tie that to the impacts to the Marshallese workforce as well. How do we continue to bring those critical workforce team members onto the island? We have more than 1,100 Marshallese citizens working to support the mission, and I need them.

I’m confident that we’ll find a good way forward over the next couple of weeks to set conditions for getting us through that as fast as possible, minimizing the impacts to services, the mission and the community.

Do you foresee any impacts to our internet bandwidth usage when COVID hits the island? When I think about COVID, I think of children staying home from schools and people utilizing video chat instead of speaking face-to-face.

I don’t believe we will see any more significant impacts than already exist in the community, though school is a bit different. If you have 200 students at home doing online classes or in-person Zoom meetings, that could be something to consider.

Once a shift has been made towards more of a telework scheme, the question is whether there is going to be a need for greater bandwidth. I bet some of the island contractors have employees who could work from home, as could our Department of the Army civilian employees.

We are unique in that there is not a lot we can do when it comes to bandwidth. We are, however, looking at ways to mitigate the impact to these types of operations until we get through this COVID spike.

It’s just that spike window we’re worried about. After that, we’re going to be in line with the rest of the world. We will deal with resurgent spikes by implementation or increasing the precautionary levels. Everyone [in the U.S.] is more comfortable with this.

They know when and at what level they must start to consider wearing masks and to consider increasing or reducing telework options. These are all things we can work through.

Do you foresee that vaccination will become mandatory?

I have no legal authority to enforce anyone to be vaccinated, at least from the government perspective. The contractors, on the other hand, do have that capacity. I believe the timeline is speculative after October 1.

It is probably in the best interests of the contractors, as well as the tenant organizations, to look at mechanisms in which to enforce or highly encourage their holdouts to get vaccinated. I had hoped, based on what we know now, that a good chunk of those holdouts only felt there was no need to be vaccinated while living in a COVID-free environment.

I hope they are encouraged to reach out to island health services to get vaccinated. I also believe the contractors will put more pressure on their employees to make sure they get vaccinated.

The best thing you can do to mitigate the potential impact to this organization, the mission and the community is to get vaccinated. I’m hoping to see a spike—not of infections, but in people signing up for vaccinations.

Are you aware of any plans to curtail Air Marshall Islands flights for inter-atoll travel after COVID enters the Marshall Islands?

I have no control over how Air Marshall Islands decides to service the outer islands. I have a feeling they are not planning for any interruption in flights.

I believe they understand that once we have community spread that they are going to deal with it and that they will be ready. There may be some decisions by the National Disaster Management Office or the Ministry of Health and Human Services to try to mitigate or manage the spread of COVID once they do see it in their population centers.

It is likely that COVID will spread to the outer islands and the RMI Ministry of Health and Human Services will focus on spikes.

Do you foresee wearing masks and other personal protective equipment being a requirement for the community?

We already have a requirement for masks and personal protective equipment. Every time the Vector, Kwajalein Hospital and quarantine teams engage with quarantine operations, they’re all in full PPE.

At some point, we must consider at what levels mask-wearing is appropriate for the community—and this is all medically informed.

We will codify and develop how we scale our risk to the community. There is no other organization in the Army that we can really look to for advice. Most Army organizations use the county they’re in or the state they’re in to help drive their levels of concern based on caseloads per 100,000 people. We have a fraction of that number here, and we are working on what that means for us and drafting new safety levels; it’s tied to what our capacity is to treat severe cases.

On those levels, I can foresee recommendations for telework and mandated mask-wearing in all government buildings. This is something the garrison will enforce, and we will expect the contractors to enforce, too.

The CDC does recommend those who are sick to wear masks inside their own home if they are trying to isolate. The repercussions for failure to follow those roles have yet to be determined, but I have a full range of potential options—everything from a verbal warning to removal from the installation. Hopefully, that is not necessary. I hope that most community members living on Kwajalein have an interest in the welfare of their neighbors and are going to do everything they can to help mitigate and reduce the likelihood of infecting other people. That’s my hope.

I ask the community to pay attention to the resources that we’ll put out there to help you prepare. If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. Talk to your family and your kids. Let them know what could happen. Don’t freak them out, but don’t stick your head in the sand either.

The problem is not going to go away. What we can do is to be proactive at planning and preparation. We can mitigate how much of an impact that will have on the community.

Let’s be active and do all we can. Let’s prepare. Let’s not avoid or hide or ignore.

It’s in our best interests to embrace it and work through it together. Once we get on the other side, we’ll look back, and we’ll probably still say we overreacted. That’s just human nature.

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Start with your own employers. If you have questions for the garrison, feel free to ask, to send a private message to the USAG-KA Facebook page and to utilize the Commander’s Hotline (5-1098). We will do our best to provide you the information you need.