The below replaces an earlier version.
CAPE MAY - A COVID-19 outbreak at Coast Guard Training Center (TRACEN) Cape May impacted three companies awaiting the start of boot camp, causing the base to suspend or modify activities to what they were when the pandemic first hit.
As of Dec. 12, Capt. Kathy Felger, commanding officer, TRACEN, announced an increase in the number of positive cases in three companies on base, as surveillance testing continued.
Positive COVID-19 cases surfaced in one company during the week of Nov. 30. Additional testing identified positive cases in two others during the week of Dec. 7. That company arrived on base Nov. 17, followed by the other two over the next two weeks.
“These companies will remain in quarantine until they clear medical protocols,” Felger announced, in a post on the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May (Official) Facebook page (https://bit.ly/3qXjVl1). All three commands were in separate buildings and have not intermixed.
“Currently, all COVID positive recruits are either asymptomatic or only had mild symptoms,” she stated. “No one has required advanced medical care.
“By continuing to analyze the spread of cases, we identified groups of people who were of concern,” Felger said, in her update. “We have implemented further COVID-safety protocols and increased mitigation measures for staff and recruits.”
At the same time, the commanding officer said TRACEN would not receive recruits Dec. 15, as planned. The next ship date is yet to be determined. Future graduation dates and times remain the same for the two companies nearing graduation, but they are subject to change, as well.
In addition, all leave outside of 200 miles is canceled, except for emergencies; base access is restricted to only those personnel mission essential to operations; the chapel, galley and Exchange are open to recruits and essential personnel only; the Harborview is closed until further notice; and the gym is open to recruits only.
The chaplains are available by phone, as needed, and emergent appointments, if necessary.
“We are working with our Coast Guard medical staff on testing and contact tracing,” said Chief Warrant Officer Timothy Tamargo, public affairs officer, TRACEN. “We have to wait for the symptoms to present or for tests to be positive, and then there is a ripple effect in terms of who they have come in contact with - their families, the staff.
“The dates for quarantine get reset every time there is a new positive case, so you can imagine how frustrating that can be. That is why we have our medical staff providing holistic, around-the-clock care to all those who are impacted. We are providing our mental health staff resources and access to chaplains to address the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all recruits and staff.”
As of Dec. 12, TRACEN has 36 COVID-positive recruits, according to the public affairs officer. There are also nine COVID-positive staff members out of about 600 from different divisions on base being monitored, as well. The staff is isolated in their homes. Contact tracing and appropriate quarantine measures are being coordinated by the Coast Guard medical staff at TRACEN.
Tamargo speculated that the virus was brought in by the new recruits, rather than Thanksgiving Day activities that were part of Operation Fireside.
Operation Fireside, an American Red Cross program started in 1981, offers recruits an opportunity to take a break from basic training and spend Thanksgiving and/or Christmas with a local family. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the program was different this year. Red Cross volunteers baked desserts and sent uplifting cards and video messages to recruits.
“A limited number of training center staff interacted with a small number of Red Cross volunteers the day before Thanksgiving, as they dropped off cards and food,” said Tamargo. “Those training center staff have not had any issues. No Red Cross personnel were on base on Thanksgiving during Operation Fireside. The staff and Red Cross volunteers followed appropriate COVID protocols during the exchange, wearing masks and social distancing.”
Recruits from the individual companies self-served desserts during Operation Fireside, according to Tamargo.
“Recruit companies did not intermix,” he added. “Regular meals were served at the galley, as normal, separate from Operation Fireside, and bagged meals were delivered for ROM (Restrictions on Movement-14) companies in their squad bays.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Coast Guard initiated a ROM program, which requires new recruits arriving on base to segregate for 14 days.
During this time, they are limited to one building and squad bay, have meals delivered instead of joining other recruits in the galley, and primarily perform academic studies. There is minimal physical training during this surveillance time.
“The ROM is working as it should,” noted Tamargo. “It was meant to help filter and catch the virus before it spreads throughout the center. We test several times during the ROM, as the virus can be present without symptoms. This was caught on the second wave of testing.”
TRACEN completes contact tracing within the companies and with the staff for every positive case.
“There is no indication that Operation Fireside was the cause,” said Tamargo. “It is likely that original spread in the squad bay was caused by a positive infected recruit in ROM shortly after arrival, and that the spread was not identified until the second round of surveillance testing. We have continued to analyze the spread, isolation, and quarantine accordingly, and added additional testing protocols prior to placing any recruit into normal training.”
Recruits who test positive are isolated in one of the ROM building’s COVID wards designated for that use, said Tamargo.
“Depending on when their tests come back, recruits are required to quarantine for 14 days until cleared by the medical staff to continue training. Typically, recruits are rephased into a company that is relatively at the same point in training the recruit was pulled from. They do not repeat training due to COVID. If they are delayed in starting regular boot camp training, they are safely trained on course material to further prepare them to start training. This can result in a delay in training of one to two weeks,” he continued.
Tamargo said the goal is to keep the two senior companies “clean,” so they can complete boot camp and graduate as planned and get them to their assignments as quickly as possible. One company is scheduled to graduate Dec. 16, and the other the following week.
Since June, when the Coast Guard began surveillance testing, they had “a few” positive cases in many companies that arrived. “Through our initial medical surveillance, we have tested 2,200 recruits at a 1.6% positivity rate,” said Tamargo.
“Because recruits come to Cape May from all over the country, the ROM process is in place to identify those who arrive with positive cases, quickly isolate and quarantine those who are affected in order to limit spread and possible exposure to others,” he said. “Our goal at the training center is to ensure that all recruits and staff are safe to commence normal boot camp-type training, so that we can continue to develop the future workforce of the Coast Guard.”
Tamargo said they are reviewing their plans for the holidays, including Christmas Operation Fireside, as well as other activities on base.
“We will continue to assess those activities, modify as needed for safety, or cancel altogether,” he pointed out. “Operation Fireside for Thanksgiving was significantly different than those in the past. Christmas will likely be similar to Thanksgiving, but we may modify the recruit schedules and add further safety measures out of an abundance of caution.”
Diane Concannon, communications director, American Red Cross New Jersey Region, said they were “very pleased to help coordinate Operation Fireside with the Coast Guard this year. Although it looked very different this year and the recruits did not spend the day with Cape May families, we were glad the Coast Guard decided to have a special day at the training center for the recruits.”
She pointed out that Red Cross volunteers were not part of any Operation Fireside activity Thanksgiving Day, nor did they serve meals at TRACEN.
“Red Cross volunteers simply dropped off donations at the training center the day before Thanksgiving and were wearing masks,” said Concannon.
“We are not aware of any of our volunteers involved with the coordination of Operation Fireside being sick with COVID-19,” she added.
Throughout the COVID pandemic over the past nine months, the Coast Guard continued to assess, evaluate, and update its COVID protocols and safety measures.
“We are continuing that assessment with this recent increase in positive cases,” Tamargo said. “Our updates and changes to COVID safety measures are made in alignment with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and our Coast Guard medical and safety professionals.
“Training Center Cape May is designated as mission-critical, time-sensitive to Coast Guard operations,” he said. “We are following the Coast Guard’s guidance on travel in conjunction with other official federal, state and local guidance in dealing with COVID.
“We are constantly assessing the operational environment and making decisions on the best available information,” he added. “Our goal is to limit, to the greatest extent possible, any outside factor that would impact our mission to train new recruits and to protect the health and safety of our staff.”
In the coming federal fiscal year (October 2020-September 2021), the Coast Guard is expecting to train nearly 4,000 recruits at TRACEN.
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