With most NAS Patuxent River personnel currently teleworking, it may appear quiet, but there are many people whose jobs have ramped up onboard the installation during the COVID-19 crisis; two of those individuals being Pat Paulsen, the Emergency Management Officer, and Dr. Patricia Bray, the Public Health Emergency Officer.
Directing the Pax River Emergency Operations Center (EOC), it is Paulsen’s job to oversee the management and dissemination of information, which involves meeting frequently with NAS leadership and other core partners like security, fire and emergency services, public affairs, and public works, to name a few.
“We have update briefings which include lots of commanders from our tenant commands,” Paulsen explained. “It started out daily, then three times a week, now we meet twice a week. We mirror the frequency of the same meetings Naval District Washington is having. On the side, the [NAS] commanding officer, executive officer, and command master chief also meet with their counterparts almost as frequently — some of it is formal, some informal. There are a lot of emails and phone conversations going on to make sure we’re all communicating and have the same understanding of the situation and what we’re trying to do.”
Also involved in the EOC meetings, Bray serves to medically advise NAS Commanding Officer Capt. Christopher Cox whenever there’s a public health emergency, and COVID-19 definitely fits that description.
“I look for ways to help mitigate and implement the guidance that has come from the Navy and public health experts on how we can reduce our risk in the workplace,” said Bray, whose “day job” is an Occupational Health doctor with Naval Health Clinic Patuxent River. “I take that guidance and apply it to our unique workspaces like the radar room, cockpits and machine shops — places where it’s not easy to physically distance and still get the job done. Mitigations are also applied to public areas and spaces with potentially high risk patrons like the Commissary and the Child Development Centers.”
Keeping people safe through
Although the health protection condition is now at Bravo and some Pax River facilities have reopened, there are still restrictions and guidelines in place to minimize contact between individuals.
“The biggest restriction for most people is that the Trusted Traveler Program is still suspended. The whole reason that was suspended was to minimize people sharing a confined space — a car — from coming onto the installation,” Paulsen noted. “You can still bring visitors on base, but you have to go through the Visitor Control Center to get a pass and there are limitations. And there are still requirements for social distancing and wearing masks — and wearing masks [onboard Pax River] is non-negotiable.”
Bray agrees that wearing a face covering is the simplest, most effective way to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
“There is overwhelming evidence from population studies that wearing a mask is effective; it’s the single best intervention for interfering with transmission,” the doctor stated. “Wearing the mask protects others from our breath particles and it’s enormously effective if you look at the evidence, so it’s amazing to me how controversial it is. It’s a difficult behavioral change for some people, but we’re fortunate to have a controlled environment on base where it can be mandated.”
In addition to pushing the message of wearing masks, washing hands and physically distancing, another important component in battling the virus is case contact tracing.
“Whenever there’s a positive case identified, we’ll do a case contact investigation, which is an evaluation of who was in close contact with that person,” Bray said. “We do it so those people can be separated from everyone else. We think up to 50% of cases come from people who are asymptomatic, so we want to separate out anyone who was in close contact and put them in quarantine for 14 days, which is the incubation period of the virus.”
While some buildings and facilities are asking questions and temperature-checking visitors, people are being trusted to be honest and do the right thing to protect others.
“If you’re suspected of being sick but no medical test has confirmed it yet, you are automatically on quarantine or Restriction of Movement (ROM},” Paulsen said. “Or if you’re in close contact with someone who is being isolated with the virus, then by definition you’re in quarantine [and should stay home]. And that applies to everyone – military, civilian and contractors.”
As the service component command for naval forces in CONUS, U.S. Fleet Forces Command is primarily directing and coordinating the Navy’s COVID-19 response.
“The Pax River CO can be more restrictive than what higher headquarters is suggesting, but he cannot loosen things unless he gets approval from NDW, at a minimum,” Paulsen noted. “Everyone has a chain of command.”
There’s also a process as to how the installation directs the tenant commands, and everyone attempts to be in sync about what’s being done and the requirements for reopening.
“For example, take the barber shop on base; are they meeting the NEX requirements for reopening as well as the CNIC fleet forces requirements? And, do we have an independent validation of that from the health clinic or our safety folks to make sure we’re taking reasonable mitigations and precautions,” Paulsen said. “Whenever you bring people back together, there’s transmission risk. We can’t bring that to zero, so we need to make sure we’re doing everything we reasonably can to reduce the exposure risk as much as we can. There is a deliberate process to reopening our facilities in stages and how well we’re managing what level we’re open at.”
St. Mary’s County has its own EOC to handle the pandemic, and Bray, along with Pax River’s Community Liaison Sabrina Hecht, attend those meetings as medical and command representatives.
“The community is interested in what the installation is going to do since we are the largest employer in the county,” Paulsen said. “Whatever we do is going to have a significant impact to the situation or conditions they’re dealing with.”
Be vigilant, follow the guidelines
As a whole, the state of Maryland and Southern Maryland, as a region, are holding their own in the battle against the virus.
“You can see a daily tally on the County Health Department’s website,” Bray added. “We’re not without cases, but we’re doing relatively well. At Pax River, our case contact investigations show the vast majority of workers picked up the illness outside of the fence.”
Personnel are encouraged to continue doing their part by wearing face coverings, washing their hands and keeping their distance.
“I intend to keep hammering folks to play the game,” Paulsen said. “We don’t want to go back to a higher more restrictive condition, but if there’s enough increase in positive cases, we’ll have to; and we prefer to avoid that.”