Ft. Leonard Wood officials quiet about investigation into COVID-19


By Spencer Norris, Missouri News Network

Officials at Fort Leonard Wood have opened an investigation into the spread of COVID-19 on the base but refuse to answer many questions about how they are managing a situation that a local official says left hundreds quarantined.

Tiffany Wood, director of public affairs at Fort Leonard Wood’s Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, said a number of soldiers were screened for COVID-19 after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.

“All soldiers within the group are either in quarantine or isolation based on their screening and are being cared for by medical professionals assigned to the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital,” Wood said in an email to the Columbia Missourian.

“It takes only one person to disregard the directives and threaten the health and readiness of the rest. We take this very seriously and an investigation has been initiated to determine if any procedures may not have been completely followed,” Wood wrote. “It is important to remember that the investigation is ongoing, and we are gathering all the facts at this time. While the investigation continues, our primary objective is the well-being of all of our soldiers.”

Wood would not answer questions about where the soldiers were when they contracted COVID-19, who else may have been exposed and what specific regulations they are suspected of violating. The public affairs office also declined interviews with officials familiar with the investigation.

“Due to (HIPAA), privacy and operations security concerns, we will not provide any additional information about the soldiers,” Wood wrote.

The Department of Defense’s policy is to not disclose the number of COVID-19 cases on any given base. Fort Leonard Wood, population 16,000, accounts for about 30 percent of Pulaski County’s population. Pulaski County Health Director Deborah Baker said the base is included in county-wide tallies of COVID-19 cases and deaths. As of Tuesday, 36 positive cases and one death because of COVID-19 have been reported from Pulaski County.

Baker underscored the county’s relatively low infection rate and offered her confidence in the Army’s management of the quarantine.

Aside from the investigation, the Army has refused to answer key questions about how it is managing COVID-19 at Fort Leonard Wood.

Wood would not provide the number of COVID-19 test kits available. When asked how many tests are available, Wood responded, “We have appropriate protocols in place with our medical professionals to test those who need to be tested.”

Wood also refused to say how many soldiers are currently in quarantine, citing operational security. When asked how releasing these numbers would impinge on security, Wood responded that “Army readiness is about national security, which is why we don’t release these numbers.”

Hundreds have been quarantined on base, Baker said.

Soldiers are being quarantined in the barracks while they await test results. The Army refused to say how many soldiers are being placed in the same room during quarantine.

Soldiers are still charged with sanitizing their own facilities, armed with “face coverings, gloves and cleaning supplies,” according to Wood. It’s a stark contrast from images of soldiers in hazmat suits being trained to disinfect “mission-essential” facilities, including living quarters, published by the Fort Leonard Wood Press Center.

“All soldiers in quarantine are following the recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing and hygiene guidelines as directed by the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital medical staff,” Wood wrote.

The Army has declined requests for interviews with officials responsible for managing the public health emergency. The Missourian was instead directed to the town hall briefings held by Fort Leonard Wood’s commanding general, Donna Martin.

On March 31, Maj. Gen. Martin issued General Order 1, which establishes provisions for social distancing, quarantine procedures, isolation procedures, local travel restrictions, and other regulations for conduct during the health emergency.

The Army declined to provide a copy of the general order when asked. However, the Missourian acquired an amended version that was issued April 22.

The amended order specifies that soldiers will be quarantined if they are “reasonably believed to have been exposed to COVID-19 but not yet symptomatic to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease.”

A number of other Army bases have published their COVID-19 directives publicly, including Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Rucker in Alabama, Fort Huachuca in Arizona, Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Riley in Kansas and Fort Irwin in California.

Officials have tightened access to the base. Only people with Department of Defense identification cards are allowed to access the site, according to Wood. She declined to say how many people move on and off base daily, citing operational security.

“There are strict access control measures in place specifically related to COVID-19 that are meant to protect our service members, their families and our civilian workforce,” Wood wrote.

According to Wood, soldiers are engaging in social distancing measures and are taking extra precautions. Soldiers new to Fort Leonard Wood are also being tested for COVID-19 during intake, she wrote.

“All new recruits shipping into the training base will be screened and will immediately enter a 14-day controlled monitoring status. During that two-week period, new recruits will receive academic classes in a controlled environment with proper preventive measures, social distancing, daily screening and close oversight,” Wood wrote.

“Individual soldiers in quarantine, who are not new recruits, are not participating in training,” she continued.

According to Wood, only “mission-essential personnel” are required to report for duty. When asked to define “mission-essential,” Wood replied, “Mission-essential personnel are identified as those required for the continued operation of mission-essential functions.” Wood declined to provide the number of mission-essential personnel on base “out of a concern for operational security with regard to readiness.”