The 55th Wing Commander is warning that restrictions that were lifted last month at Offutt Air Force Base could be reimposed if airmen there can’t curb a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
“As an installation, we’re trending in the wrong direction, one that may require us to enact more restrictions,” said Col. Gavin Marks in a Facebook post late last week.
Marks cited clusters of cases “where people attended large social gatherings off-base and they did not adhere to CDC guidance” involving social distancing or mask-wearing.
In a follow-up statement Tuesday, 55th Wing officials said those activities included weddings, barbecues, graduation parties, youth sports activities and church events, as well as going to restaurants and bars.
The statement noted that though these activities are allowed, large gatherings and inadequate social distancing increase the risk of contracting the virus.
“Non-adherence to CDC guidelines affects everyone,” Marks said in his Facebook post. “Please know that I remain resolute in my commitment to balancing mission and readiness with protecting our Airmen and families.”
The base south of Omaha, where nearly 10,000 people live and work, has been under a public health emergency since March 27. At that time, Marks closed most recreational facilities on base — including the Field House, the base’s hangar-sized gymnasium — and limited Offutt’s dining facility and fast-food restaurants to takeout service.
In mid-June, he allowed most recreational sites to reopen and loosened other limits, citing a leveling off of cases in Sarpy County and the metro area.
But those trends have recently shifted. The past three weeks have seen the highest new case numbers in Sarpy County since the pandemic began, with a peak of 273 new cases the week of July 25. That week also saw a positive test rate of 11%, the county’s highest rate since April. (Both figures dropped slightly last week, to 236 and 9.6%.)
It’s not clear how many of those cases involve Offutt personnel or their families. For what Pentagon officials described as security reasons, the military doesn’t release COVID-19 numbers for individual bases.
But data from the Sarpy/Cass Health Department shows 22 current COVID-19 cases reported in Offutt’s 68113 postal ZIP code, which serves nearly 1,000 residents on the base.
It also shows 88 current cases in the 68123 ZIP code immediately west of Offutt, where many military families live in the Rising View military housing area or off-base neighborhoods. That is the highest number of cases among the 23 ZIP codes in Sarpy and Cass Counties.
Offutt’s Public Health Emergency Group, created to advise Marks on the COVID-19 pandemic, met Monday morning and did not recommend immediately reimposing any restrictions, said Delanie Stafford, a 55th Wing spokesman.
The emergency group is scheduled to meet again Thursday, and Stafford said Marks planned to release a video statement to the Offutt community.
In the meantime, Marks stressed the need to wear masks on and off base when social distancing isn’t possible, and to wash hands frequently.
“Sometime in the future, hopefully soon, we’ll be able to look back on this pandemic as a memory,” he said, “but until then we must continue to hold the line.”