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Service continues on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst despite coronavirus cases there

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (Famartin/WikiCommons)

Behind the secured gates of New Jersey’s joint base life and work during the coronavirus outbreak looks very much like it does outside the installation.

Service members and civilian workers on the base are being told to socially distance and work remotely when possible. Many installation services have been shutdown and the troops are being told to remain at home when not working.

And yes, the virus has infiltrated the installation. As of March 26 the base was reporting 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus involving military members, dependents or civilian workers assigned there.

An updated figure is not available, as the Department of Defense has ordered military bases and their commenders to withhold coronavirus case numbers, citing the operational security issues. However, joint base officials confirmed that the numbers of cases has increased since March 26.

A county spokesman also said joint base officials communicate with the county’s health officers daily about the outbreak and conditions on the base, though the county does not include all cases from the installation in its total count. Base personnel who reside in off-base housing are typically included in the county’s count but not necessarily those who are tested on the base, officials said.

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As of Thursday, Burlington County had just under 300 total confirmed cases of coronavirus and Ocean County had 1,458.

Despite the outbreak, the essential missions on the base have continued and in some cases have even expanded to support the national response to the pandemic.

“We are working diligently to keep our folks safe, as well as support the nation in the response happening in the public sector,” said Air Force Col. Jacqueline D. Breeden, commander of the 305th Air Mobility Wing, on Tuesday during a Facebook Live Q+A for members of the wing and their families.

Among the missions the joint base has supported has been the airlifting of COVID-19 test swabs from overseas back to the United States.

Service members at the joint base have participated in numerous relief missions across the globe following earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and even Ebola outbreaks. So it’s hardly unusual the base is now called to duty in the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, though it’s infrequent that the aid is needed inside the United States.

More than 3.5 million test swabs have been brought into the country, with at least one of the six flights stopping at the joint base from Italy en route to Memphis, where the supplies have been distributed by commercial distribution companies.

A flight crew from the base was assigned to complete a seventh airlift mission to Italy and back this week, according to U.S. Air Mobility Command.

The base has also processed more than 600 Army soldiers that have been deployed from the 9th Hospital Center out of Fort Hood in Texas and the 531st Hospital Center of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to the New York City area, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

The joint base has acted as a reception and staging area for those soldiers, officials said.

The base also remains a potential site for lodging passengers arriving into the U.S. at Newark Liberty International Airport who are required to be quarantined.

The Doughboy Inn on the base is the designated site, but to date no passengers have had to be lodged there, the joint base reported.

The base has also designated two lodging facilities for military service members who return to the joint base from overseas or other areas who need to be quarantined.

“This is mainly for personnel unable to self-quarantine at home, single military members who would normally enter on-base dorms with shared bathrooms and those attending pre-deployment training,” said Major Brian J. Wagner, chief of public affairs at the joint base.

In order to try to combat the spread of the virus through the installation, the base has closed or adjusted scores of services typically offered, including its movie theater, bowling ally, golf courses, fitness centers and swimming pool.

Like most supermarkets, the base Commissary is now offering online shopping and curbside pickup of groceries.

But access to the base exchange and commissary for veterans who reside off the base is now restricted solely to Saturdays.

During her Facebook talk, Breeden stressed the need for service members to follow all the same guidelines that have been publicized across the state and nation, including washing their hands often and keeping an acceptable social distance from others. Like the rest of New Jersey, COVID-19 testing is restricted to those who have symptoms or have had direct contact with someone who is confirmed positive for coronavirus.

Contact tracing — investigations into who a confirmed coronavirus patient may have had contact with — is also occurring on the installation, Breeden said.

But the base’s essential national security missions continue and that puts some members of the military in harms way. Likewise, she said service members are required to maintain their “readiness,” even though the outbreak has forced the suspension of organized physical training.

“Right now we ask our folks to do the best they can to stay fit to fight,” the colonel said. “To stay healthy. We are not congregating. There are gyms that are closed so there is no unit PT so it is all on individuals to maintain their readiness and fitness.”

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© 2020 Burlington County Times