KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Holding the 403rd Wing August Unit Training Assembly in the midst of the COVID-19 “Fourth Wave” is weighing heavily on my mind. We had some positive tests within the wing coming out of the July UTA and have had a few more in the weeks since.
I’m worried by the fact that area hospitals have seen more than a 400% increase in COVID patients in the past month (with the average age of patients dropping), only 33% of Mississippi residents have been fully vaccinated (near the very bottom nationally), and 20-30% of patients are experiencing prolonged and persistent symptoms. But, at the same time, only 5% of patients who are testing positive and requiring hospitalization locally from COVID-19 are fully vaccinated … with zero deaths, according to Ochsner Health.
But that worry drives action, not inaction. So my ultimate decision was to hold an in-person UTA while keeping a number of things in mind.
1. Do NOT report to the UTA if you are sick.
2. Do NOT report to the UTA if someone in your household is sick.
Additionally, we will focus on the following four tactics to safely navigate the drill weekend: UPDATE, EDUCATE, MANDATE, and INSULATE.
Here is what I mean by that:
UPDATE – I need to have a clear view on the status of our wing as we continue to operate during this pandemic. If you chose to get vaccinated outside of a military facility, it may not be reflected in your records. For those Airmen, please come to drill with civilian documentation showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination so that we can annotate it in your military medical records. Your commanders will provide a link to the 403rd Aeromedical Staging Squadron drop box to do so.
EDUCATE – I understand the decision to be vaccinated can be a challenging one. With this in mind, I have asked Lt. Col. Natalie McKee, our public health nurse expert at the 403rd ASTS, to hold multiple sessions to educate you on the science and facts of the vaccine. If you have not yet been vaccinated, I highly encourage you to attend one of these sessions so you can learn, ask tough questions, and make a fully informed decision. These sessions are planned for Saturday, Aug. 7, from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and Sunday, Aug. 8, from 1 to 1:30 p.m., both in the Robert’s Auditorium. Additionally, the 22nd Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Col. Tasha Felton Williams is holding a Zoom meeting to do the same thing for Airmen and their families. The next meeting is Sunday, Aug. 8, at 3 p.m. Your leadership can provide the link if you’re interested.
MANDATE –Our new Department of Defense mandate states that all personnel are to wear a mask while indoors at Keesler Air Force Base. So, as we do when overcoming other challenges with events like Safety Stand-Downs, let’s take a few extra steps backwards to fight this enemy that has fallen back, adjusted, and re-attacked us while we were complacent and vulnerable.
INSULATE – I need all of you to set us up for success by thinking through every event before holding it this weekend (training, meeting, etc.). Answer at least the following questions. Is it mandatory for all attendees to be in the same place at the same time? Are we adhering to the current base restriction of 50% capacity for indoor gatherings? If needed, is there a larger venue to hold the event? I need you to apply risk management to even the simplest things this weekend.
The bottom line is that our country requires us to continue our mission during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we owe it to them to conduct ourselves in a way that maximizes our chances of successfully completing this mission. I look forward to seeing you this weekend … at least the top third of your faces. Let’s continue to prove that we are the WING OF CHOICE even amidst this pandemic.