Weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed havoc on the United States, Fort Carson was already preparing for the fallout.
Col. Brian Wortinger, garrison commander at Fort Carson, said beginning in early January, post leadership was in daily contact with peers in South Korea about the virus and were cognizant of its potential impacts long before the first case was diagnosed in Colorado.
“At the same time we had been identified by the Department of Defense and [U.S. Northern Command] … as a contingency site to house some military personnel that were returning to the States that required quarantine,” Wortinger said. “We ended up, at the time, not executing the mission. But that got us planning very heavily for dealing with COVID-19 back in early January. I felt that that gave us the ability to get weeks, if not months, ahead of the rest of the country in some ways in dealing with this issue.”
But as in every city and state across the country, the pandemic has forced massive changes at Fort Carson — to its community hospital, its economy and to daily life on post.
It’s currently unclear to what extent proactive measures taken by Fort Carson — many of which align with local and federal guidelines surrounding staying at home and social distancing — have prevented the spread of the virus on post.
In late March, the Pentagon ordered military bases and combatant commands to stop reporting coronavirus case numbers. Prior to the order, Fort Carson had reported eight cases in its community through March 27.
Because of the order, Wortinger could not comment on Fort Carson’s diagnosed cases or how many soldiers have been tested, but noted, “If you look at Fort Carson and our population, relative to El Paso County on a per capita basis, we have a dramatically lower rate of COVID infection.”
The threat of the virus has forced significant changes to the policies and operations of the post’s primary health care facility, Evans Army Community Hospital.
Wortinger said hospital leadership undertook extensive planning prior to the virus’ arrival on post, with triggers set in advance to indicate when certain measures should take effect, such as restricting access, canceling events and requiring social distancing in public spaces.
On March 18, Fort Carson established a Consolidated Screening and Testing Center, which provides screening, testing and treatment for patients with symptoms associated with COVID-19.
Wortinger said the facility has an entrance separate from the rest of the hospital and allows for the testing of “the slightly over 60,000 beneficiaries that we have that use our hospital here on the installation.”
Appointments within the hospital have also changed significantly. All of its clinics have adjusted operations, with many meetings taking place virtually and face-to-face appointments only being approved on a case-by-base basis.
The hospital pharmacy remains open, though all who enter must have their temperature taken as a precaution to help safeguard staff and patients. Since March 30, the hospital has also offered curbside pharmacy service.
Wortinger said the hospital is currently well supplied to accommodate the peak of the pandemic, but is also planning on increasing its bed capacity so that “in conjunction with all the other Colorado Springs partners in the health care system, we can have as much bed space as possible when this does peak.”
“We believe we have what we need for this fight,” Wortinger said. “Because that’s a key part of any battle is sustaining the fight and the logistics of it. It’s what we do.”
LIFE ON POST
Access to and exit from Fort Carson have been severely restricted during the pandemic, as only DoD affiliates or those who work on post are allowed through its gates.
Even delivery drivers are now being questioned and medically screened for COVID-19 symptoms before being granted access.
Fort Carson soldiers cannot travel more than 30 miles away from post, and many of the installation’s programs and services have shifted to virtual or telephone operations.
Wortinger said about 40 percent of Fort Carson’s workforce is currently telecommuting to perform their duties, and office hours have been cut for many services that have seen a drop in demand due to the pandemic.
Many businesses and service facilities on post have closed, including nearly everything in the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation — which includes fitness centers, restaurants, pools, events and conference centers, the Grant Library, the Cheyenne Mountain Shooting Complex and the Auto Skills Center. One recreational asset that remains available is Cheyenne Shadows Golf Course, which reopened April 1 on a limited basis.
Many facilities that remain open have made drastic changes.
Post mess halls, for instance, have shifted to offering food to go, where soldiers’ meals are prepped, boxed and handed to them on their way out the door.
For most major facilities, those seeking access must answer health screening questions and have their temperature checked: “… If someone is otherwise asymptomatic and may be expressing a fever, hopefully we can identify them,” Wortinger said, “then immediately take them over to our screening facility at Evans.”
As of April 11, visitors to all post businesses and service facilities must also wear face masks to be allowed inside.
THE POST ECONOMY
One of the primary revenue drivers for Fort Carson DFMWR programs is the Army & Air Force Exchange Service — or AAFES — which operates 65 facilities on post, including the post exchange.
In 2019, exchange revenue at Fort Carson totaled $132 million, according to AAFES Chief of Public Relations Julie Mitchell.
Mitchell said the agency serves nearly 110,000 customers on Fort Carson and employs nearly 500 people — 68 percent of whom are veterans, military spouses or military dependents.
AAFES has taken measures to mitigate potential revenue losses from the pandemic, Mitchell said, such as encouraging physical distancing for shoppers and online shopping with in-store pickup.
As of April 17, those services expand to offer a curbside pickup option.
AAFES restaurants on Fort Carson — Mitchell said there are about 15 — remain open for takeout or drive-thru, and only two AAFES facilities — an optical shop and a Starbucks — have had to close.
The revenue generated by AAFES businesses goes toward military communities, with 60 percent of earnings supporting quality-of-life programs on military installations worldwide.
All remaining revenue, Mitchell said, is reinvested in the exchange to enhance the customer shopping experience.
For 2018, the most recent year with available data on program funding, Mitchell said the Fort Carson Exchange generated $1.9 million for quality-of-life programs.
With adjusted hours, some closures and the potential for fewer purchases as soldiers and their families practice social distancing, the revenue loss could potentially impact quality-of-life programs at Fort Carson — though Mitchell said it’s too soon to tell.
Revenue totals reported during the pandemic have so far not shown any significant declines.
For February, Mitchell said exchange revenue totaled $11 million, compared to $10.4 million in February 2019. In March, revenue totaled $12.4 million, compared to $12.5 million the year prior.
With large numbers of soldiers training at Fort Carson, Wortinger said the pandemic presents an obstacle to getting them the intensive training they need.
“Given our role as the nation’s first responders and having to be ready to perform that mission at any given time, the biggest challenge is maintaining that readiness as we go through this long fight with COVID,” Wortinger said. “Because we believe this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Wortinger said Fort Carson has tried to put systems in place that will help troops with long-term readiness, while balancing those systems with the need to protect them from COVID-19 by limiting movement and gatherings.
For daily physical fitness training, soldiers have been mandated to train in groups no larger than “buddy teams” — groups of two.
For training held in classrooms, Wortinger said groups are limited to fewer than 10 soldiers, who practice appropriate 6-foot social distancing.
Because Fort Carson has massive open areas for soldiers to conduct field training exercises — giving them plenty of space to spread out and social distance while training — Wortinger said there have been no restrictions on group sizes, though transporting soldiers to and from training areas has posed a challenge since soldiers can no longer be crammed into the backs of military vehicles 20 at a time.
“It does very much reduce the training that we’re executing,” Wortinger said, “and also alters how we execute that training.
“So we know that there’s a readiness cost associated with doing it. That is the biggest challenge that we face going forward — continuing to make those decisions to balance the current health of our force with the future readiness of our force.”