COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - After thousands of soldiers returned to Fort Benning from holidays away, there has been an increase in COVID-19 cases there, as expected.
In a socially distanced and exclusive interview with Fort Benning’s commanding general, Major General Patrick Donahoe tells us it has been surreal leading the Army installation during a pandemic, especially when the coronavirus has killed some members of their community.
“Just 2 weeks ago, we lost one of our employees from the tank and automotive command here on the installation, an older gentleman,” MG Patrick Donahoe said.
MG Donahoe says part of keeping the force healthy is giving a break, allowing more than 10,000 soldiers and staff to have a holiday block leave. Many headed home across the country, then returned to Fort Benning at the start of the new year, knowing people would come back with the virus.
“The trainees who went out and came back, we’re seeing about a 3 percent (COVID-19) positivity rate,” MG Donahoe updated us. Then there are brand new soldiers, who get tested for COVID-19 in the first 24 hours of being on the Army post, then again by their 10th day.
“New trainee signs up, goes to military entrance processing site, gets on a bus or plane to come to Fort Benning, right now 1 out of 10 of those are positive. That’s not unexpected,” MG Donahoe said. “Thank God we have not seen zombie apocalypse levels of COVID on the installation.”
Major General Donahoe says he is pleased with the low levels of the virus on the installation, calling it manageable - but they are also prepared for the worst with a separate barracks with 24/7 medical capabilities for those testing positive called the Fort Benning Recovery Center, which has its own Facebook page.
“On any given day, with just that complex, we can quarantine and isolate over 1,000 people,” MG Donahoe explained.
MG Donahoe called it: “Taking a pause in activity, limiting our interactions with each other and limiting our interactions with the community, as we get into this kung fu stance. We should be coiled up in the defense and attack mode against the disease.”
As they draft the next order with changes that go into effect after MLK Day, MG Donahoe added, ”We’re looking right now at...can we reopen off-post gyms to our people, can we reopen dining downtown?”
Fort Benning is also busy giving the Pfizer vaccine to people on post, which started a little more than a week ago.
“We hope to be done with (vaccinating) our essential personnel by the end of MLK weekend, then to open that up to our tier 2 personnel, which are high risk beneficiaries,” MG Donahoe said.
He knows there is skepticism, but calls this a well-tested and incredibly safe vaccine. Fort Benning’s commanding general got his first dose a week ago.
“My arm was a little bit sore for 24 hours, didn’t prevent me from doing PT the next morning, didn’t prevent me from coming to work,” MG Donahoe said. “It’s completely voluntary, even for soldiers, so what we’ve got to do is educate people on the safety of this vaccine.”
Speaking of education, he says schools on Fort Benning will likely allow in-person learning as soon as Muscogee County does.