By Pam Zubeck
The Air Force Academy is coping with a COVID-19 outbreak involving an undisclosed number of newly arrived cadets for basic training, an Academy spokesperson confirmed to the Indy (the Business Journal‘s sister publication).
According to sources familiar with Academy operations, the number is about 100 cadets, but Academy spokesperson Mike Kucharek said the actual number is “far lower,” though he wouldn’t disclose how many have tested positive.
The infected cadets reportedly are being quarantined with their roommates at the Academy while the school’s leaders struggle to decide what to do next — keep them there or send them home, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kucharek wouldn’t disclose details of how the Academy is responding but said, “We have a solid medical response plan in place. We are working very closely with our public health professionals and following guidelines from the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control.”
The outbreak comes just months after the Academy sent all freshmen, sophomores and juniors home on March 13 amid the coronavirus pandemic but kept the seniors on campus and quickly arranged for an early graduation on April 18 after two cadets died by suicide in their rooms during lockdown.
The Class of 2024, more than 1,000 strong, arrived on June 25 from all corners of the United States and points in between. They wore masks, as did the cadre of Academy personnel who greeted and in-processed them.
In mid-June, word had spread across the Academy that some cadets on campus had tested positive, triggering reluctance among teaching staff, some of whom are considered in at-risk groups for COVID, to provide in-person instruction, according to sources familiar with Academy operations who spoke on condition they would not be named.
Kucharek declined to directly address that issue, but said academic classes don’t begin until early August so “it’s hard to say what situation may or may not be in place come the beginning of August.”
Kucharek emphasized that the Academy is considered mission-essential to the Air Force and the newly created Space Force.
“Cadets are critical accession resources for the Air Force. As such, we have an obligation to train and educate the next Air and Space forces leaders,” he said.
Kucharek also said the Academy has “strict testing and restrictions of movement policies in place” and though he couldn’t specifically say how the infected cadets are being treated, he said the Academy relies on a quarantine and isolation plan.
El Paso County Public Health doesn’t release infection numbers for the military installations, and referred the Indy to the Academy for more information. The Department of Defense reports coronavirus data by branch of the military, not by installation. As explained by Public Health spokesperson Michelle Hewitt in an April 17 email:
…while we work closely with our military partners, the military operates under federal jurisdiction, and they are mandated to follow the guidelines and recommendations from the federal level, rather than the local level. They are mandated per DoD policy not to publish numbers of service members who may be sick, as this is a critical aspect of operational security. If you have questions about the implications of operational security, I would encourage you to reach out to military PAOs directly. As we discussed before, military bases fall under federal jurisdiction, and local public health agencies do not have the authority to report out on their data.