Deputy Garrison Commander: Fort McCoy’s COVID-19 risk-mitigation protocols set conditions to resume training

By Lt. Col. Alexander L. Carter | Deputy Garrison Commander, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort McCoy | Oct. 9, 2020

FORT McCOY, Wis. —
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fort McCoy developed and implemented a series of COVID-19 risk-mitigation protocols that enabled safe and effective training to resume on the installation.

As a result, more than 21,000 service members trained at the installation during summer 2020, according to the Fort McCoy Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security.

At the beginning
Before the COVID-19 virus outbreak reached national crisis levels, the Army had taken steps to respond to the risks associated with the global pandemic. Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA) issued a series of orders and policies across the Army to provide clear guidance.

HQDA issued travel restrictions, activated emergency-response units to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency, mobilized Army Reserve medical teams, issued stop-movement orders, raised Health Protection Condition (HPCON) levels, and imposed a variety of other restrictions to reduce the spread of the disease.

HQDA’s “EXORD 210-20 — Transition Framework,” issued in June, gave broad guidance to commanders about how to resume operations and training under COVID conditions — reinforcing time-honored principles of mission command and empowering them to make decisions based on local conditions.

Following the guidance and instructions given by Army senior leadership through EXORD 210-20, Fort McCoy leadership wasted no time in interpreting and adapting Army guidance to the local environment with the publication of Policy 37, titled “Workplace, Customer Service and Sales Point Disinfection to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19.” Col. Michael D. Poss, garrison commander, signed the policy soon after arriving at the installation in June.

The policy applies to anyone using Fort McCoy facilities, including service members, civilian employees, contractors, and visitors. It specifies that all public customer-service and sales points must be disinfected upon each day’s closure. This includes areas such as cash registers; counter surfaces; merchandise areas (baskets, carts, and belts); doors and handles; phones; keyboards; faucets; light switches; toilet handles and seats; and more. Displays that encourage touching or testing items, such as touch screens and gaming systems, are discouraged. Floors should be mopped using a bleach and water solution.

All dining facility patrons are directed to wash their hands with warm soap and water before entering the service line. All Fort McCoy personnel, regardless of organizational or unit affiliation, are asked to wipe down their workstations daily with disinfecting wipes or cleaners.

Such measures, in addition to the implementation of telework when possible, have helped slow the spread of COVID-19 on post as shown by the low positive test results from the garrison workforce and Soldiers. However, an additional policy was needed to allow to safely conduct training on post under COVID-19 constraints.

Policy for resuming training

Policy 38, “Risk Mitigation Guidelines and Requirements for Training Units to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)”, built on the post standards outlined in Policy 37 but was more prescriptive to commands and units preparing to travel to Fort McCoy throughout 2020. The policy applies to all Army components and joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners, whether conducting training at Fort McCoy or staying on the cantonment area.

The policy mandates that all training units incorporate specific risk mitigation measures in all planning, preparation, and execution of training as part of their deliberate risk assessment and management to protect the health and well-being of their units and the greater Fort McCoy community. The garrison commander signed the policy into effect in June, and it will remain in place until the installation returns to HPCON Normal.

First, the policy requires that no later than 14 days prior to the start of the training, units must submit a completed risk-assessment form provided by Fort McCoy and signed by the first commander (O-6 or equivalent) in their chain of command. Normally, the commander at any echelon of command would have the authority to sign the risk assessment, but the garrison made the change to drive greater leadership engagement and awareness, given the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat.

Second, the policy mandates that commanders conduct pre-movement COVID-19 screening and temperature checks, completed by a certified 68W (medic) or civilian health-care professional), at their home stations before departing for Fort McCoy. A process map was provided to help the unit medic or health-care provider determine which actions to take depending on a Soldier’s screening results. Only Soldiers who do not test positive, display no symptoms, and record temperatures of 99.4 degrees or less should be authorized for movement.

Third, upon arrival at Fort McCoy, first-line supervisors are required to conduct daily health monitoring, the results of which would be reported to the garrison. If a unit fails to properly report its status, the garrison would suspend its training until the unit submits the required paperwork without errors.

Fourth, units training at Fort McCoy are required to follow CDC and Army measures for COVID-19 mitigation, such as keeping 6 feet apart at all times, including in lines and waiting areas. All personnel are required to wear face coverings if the 6-foot distance is not possible.

The 6-foot separation requirement also apply to billeting arrangements. No gatherings greater than 10 people are authorized without a 6-foot separation. Commanders are directed to comply with any additional mitigation efforts a facility or organization implements, such as distance markings on floors or an all-building mask requirement.

Fifth, commanders are directed to minimize nonessential face-to-face interaction with the garrison and tenant workforce. CDC guidelines and other general health information relating to reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 were included in the policy as separate enclosures.

Sixth, commanders must implement a plan for isolation, testing, treatment, support, daily monitoring, and/or evacuation of personnel who display symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19 after arrival at Fort McCoy. Units were given guidelines for isolation and quarantine procedures, including maps to local COVID-19 screening locations and key emergency contact phone numbers both on and off post.

Seventh, units are required to have trained teams in place to conduct contact tracing, cleaning, and monitoring for personnel who test positive for COVID-19 after arrival at Fort McCoy. Units were also directed on how to assess, quarantine, support, and monitor personnel who may have had contact with an infected person.

Eighth, daily cleaning requirements were implemented for units. Units were provided a list of authorized disinfectants and out-processing or turn-in requirements upon completion of training.

Units are provided all of these requirements in a one-page unit checklist to help commanders ensure that their units met the safety guidelines and requirements. Frequently asked questions (FAQs) are included to units planning training based on the requirements provided.

The policy also outlines the types of services and support the garrison will provide to units, such as billeting, isolation facilities, emergency medical-evacuation services, hand-wash stations, limited quantities of personal protective equipment, and facility maintenance.

Measuring effectiveness, success

When Lt. Gen. Jody Daniels was sworn in as the chief of Army Reserve and commanding general, U.S. Army Reserve Command, in the summer of 2020, her priorities were clear. In her first day in command, she wrote to all Soldiers, civilian employees, and families of the Army Reserve that “resuming collective training is our goal — I will rely on leaders at all levels to make prudent risk decisions as we progress from virtual to in-person and increasingly more complex collective training and exercises.” Readiness, she said, remains paramount in order to employ the necessary capabilities to win the future fight.

After the resumption of summer training on July 7 on Fort McCoy, the post supported an average of 4,300 military personnel each week for individual and unit-level training and pre-mobilization or mobilization activities. During this time, the installation supported a number of major training exercises, such as Operation Ready Warrior, Operation Desert Dragon, and the U.S. Army Reserve Command’s Best Warrior Competition.

The installation provided direct support to a large medical unit preparing for an upcoming deployment and hosted Army ROTC units as they conducted numerous field training exercises. Lastly, Fort McCoy entered into an agreement with the Navy to provide the Navy’s Recruit Training Command a location to house recruits in a “restriction of movement” status.

This allows the Navy to monitor and evaluate recruits for COVID-19 symptoms before attending training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill.

Despite these high training numbers, the installation recorded an average 0.22 percent positive COVID-19 test rate in the training population, according to DPTMS. In this same period, regional positive-test rates ranged from approximately 0.5 percent to approximately 11 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Wisconsin rates ranged from approximately 3 percent to approximately 10 percent and national rates ranged from approximately 4 percent to approximately 9.5 percent, according to John Hopkins University.

Credit for this very low infection rate, despite the large training output, must go to the unit commanders and their first-line leaders, who were key to enforcing garrison policies.

Fort McCoy is an example of an installation that was able to meet large-scale demands for training through the development and implementation of a new, innovative post policy that resulted in helping to ensure that 21,000 personnel were able to come and train and achieve a level of readiness at Fort McCoy safely and effectively.

What happened at McCoy is instructive for other commands and garrisons that are considering resumption of large-scale training commitments. These policies and practices should be considered by any Department of Defense installation struggling with how to operate and train safely and effectively under this new normal.

Training has and always will be the pathway to readiness, and Fort McCoy, like other garrisons and installations across the Army, is a support platform for commands and units to attain the level of individual and collective capability necessary to fight and win.

Fort McCoy’s COVID-response protocols and policies must be considered for tailoring and adoption across the Army at other training installations grappling with supporting training requirements in a pandemic environment.

As Fort McCoy anticipates a larger training footprint in fiscal year 2021, the garrison command team and the support directorate leadership are confident that the policies in place will continue to decrease risk, allowing for commands and units to conduct training on the installation with a high degree of confidence and assurance.

Fort McCoy will continue to enforce proven, disciplined policies, and procedures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection amongst the formations that train there.

Operational excellence, even under COVID conditions, must be viewed as a continuing journey rather than a destination.

Learn more about Fort McCoy online at https://home.army.mil/mccoy, on Facebook by searching “ftmccoy,” and on Twitter by searching “usagmccoy.”