JBER declares emergency after seven test positive for COVID-19

An F-15 taking off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson during exercises in 2015. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

Seven people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson testing center, according to a Facebook post on Sunday night.

The Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Installation Commander has declared a public health emergency due to an elevated risk on the base for “sustained community transmission,” the post said.

Related: Health officials announce 10 new cases of COVID-19 in Alaska

The state reported that there were 32 positive cases of the virus as of Sunday night. Thirteen of those cases are in Anchorage. Last week, the base reported that one of the Anchorage positives was a JBER airman. It was not clear if that case was related to the others.

UPDATE: 16:30, 23 MARCHThe "live stream" video is now up. We apologize for the connection issue earlier….

Posted by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson JBER (official) on Sunday, March 22, 2020

Speaking over Facebook Live on Monday afternoon, installation commander Colonel Patricia Csank said the six new cases were confirmed among base personnel and affiliates over the weekend.

“There is evidence that several individuals picked it up locally in a community transfer,” she said. “Because of that, the change in transmission, I’ve declared the public health emergency.”

Some of the JBER-connected patients likely contracted the virus during out of state and overseas travel, as well, according to Csank. They are all now under “isolation orders” at home, and under medical supervision. At this point, Csank said, military public health officials have notified everyone those people had “significant contact” with over the last few weeks, and they are now under quarantine.

Among the measures to tighten control of movement on the post: the Government Hill gate will be closed and the Post Road gate will be closed to private auto traffic. The Arctic Valley gate will be closed on weekends.

Catch up on recent coverage of coronavirus in Alaska

People on the joint base are restricted to “mission essential travel” meaning: “work in critical jobs; buying groceries, health care appointments; dropping off or picking up children from care and getting fresh air “while observing 6-foot social distancing between non-family members,” the post said.

The new order on base is not a lock down, although Csank said that could change if officials see a pervasive spread of the virus, or deaths. For the time being, schools and youth centers are closed, as are barber shops and hair salons. Service branches will be issuing guidance on adjustments to grooming standards as a result of similar closures on other military installations. There are purchasing limits on some items at the commissary. Many services have modified hours or must now be conducted virtually.

One major difference between the base and the civilian world beyond the gates is that many fitness centers and gyms remain open under restricted conditions. That, Csank said, is because they are considered part of military readiness for some service members.

“For a lot of our personnel in special categories and special career fields, being physically fit is a part of their duty, and a part of their job requirement,” she said. However, hours are now limited, and access restricted for non-military personnel.

Csank and other health officials at JBER say that for two months they’ve been taking steps to prepare for the arrival of the virus.

“If the contagion spreads and we have a massive breakout, there is a mass quarantine facility on the installation. We have established a mass isolation facility on the installation, so that we can further contain the spread.”

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz ordered Anchorage residents to “hunker down” and limit travel to essential errands on Friday. That order went into effect on Sunday night.

Specific information on closures and service modifications can be found here.

This story has been updated.

Reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this story from Anchorage.