OKINAWA, Japan -- Since late March, the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa has been implementing strict safety measures including restricting activities off base to minimize the spread of COVID-19. After the infection surged in early July, with two clusters of infections discovered on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Camp Hansen, the Marine Corps worked ceaselessly to ensure the safety and protection of the U.S. military and the Okinawan communities. With deliberate force health-protection efforts, the Marine Corps was able to subside the spread of infection.
Task Force Safeguard, manned with representatives from all four services of the U.S. military, was established in July following the discovery of the two mass infections on Marine bases to oversee all testing and contact tracing efforts for the Marine forces in Okinawa. The task force is also responsible for developing preventive health measures. Whenever cases are confirmed, the individuals who tested positive get placed in isolation and the task force conducts thorough contact tracing, identifying and quarantining those who may have had close contact. At the same time, cleaning teams are dispatched to sanitize the area.
=== Preventive measures ===
U.S. Navy Capt. Erin Duffy, director for U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa Public Health Department, stresses a three-step approach in preventing the spread of COVID-19: 1) guarding our parameters by figuring out where the disease is coming from, 2) making ourselves a hard target by reducing interaction with people and 3) gathering quality intelligence through testing.
Duffy states “the more you test, the more you find it. The quicker you can move a person into isolation and quarantine other close contacts, you get them out of circulation, and get the disease out of circulation.” In addition to the three-step approach, the U.S. military in Okinawa is conducting surveillance testing which monitors the current state of infection.
“Surveillance testing means looking at one percent of the population, or tenth or so of the healthcare workers every two weeks,” defines Duffy. “You want to make sure you have the right mixes of people. We have junior enlisted in the barracks as well as middle age people with children in the school. We want to make sure that we are getting different basis covered.”
Other than implementing these approaches and tests, U.S. military personnel have been enforcing rigorous health measures such as restricting non-essential activities and movements on and off base.
“Although there may still be cases of infection within the U.S. military, considering that the Marines were able to manage the infection under control without having an explosive outbreak, I think their effort paid off,” said Dr. Yoshihiro Takayama, a member of the Okinawa Prefectural Government COVID-19 Infection Task Force. “Restraining movements is the most effective measure for preventing the spread of infection. I think that the Marine Corps choosing to prevent people from going out in town while there were active cases was a highly effective measure.”
=== U.S. military-Okinawa relationship ===
The USNHO and the OPG Public Health and Medical Care Department have had a long working relationship before COVID-19 outbreak. Because of the mutual trust built over more than five decades, the USNHO was able to coordinate tests for a few patients at the local hospitals in the early stage of the disease when the USNHO did not have the current testing capabilities.
There should be no boundaries when it comes to serving those in need. These are times to cooperate, show solid alliance, and reaffirm unwavering commitment for greater good.
“Medical staffs’ aspiration to wanting to restrain the virus is the same regardless of their background,” said Motoko Bennett, the public health specialist liaison with USNHO. “There are no barriers between these frontline medical professionals who are joining forces for control effort.”
The U.S. military’s need to protect operational security originally limited the sharing of information, however due to the unprecedented spread of the virus, the U.S. military in Okinawa began disclosing information with the OPG by the end of July, bringing relief to government health officials.
“Ever since the U.S. military started providing excellent and accurate information about cases, we were relieved,” said Takayama, who specializes in infectious diseases at Okinawa Chubu Hospital, Uruma City. “I hope we can continue this relationship. The important thing is to disclose information to each other precisely, to investigate properly asking ‘we have this many cases. Why did the infection spread?,’ and to report to each other. It is important to work together in order to not repeat the same investigation failure with the initial response.”
Throughout the pandemic, the Marine Corps in Okinawa and the OPG are working in tandem to further cooperate in mitigating any potential spread of the virus.
“The Marine Corps works very closely with the OPG and has done so throughout the COVID-19 situation on island,” said Col. Neil Owens, director of Government and Externals Affairs, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “We communicate daily to ensure that OPG is aware of the COVID-19 situation aboard the bases so that OPG officials can make informed COVID-19 related decisions.”
=== Extra steps to improve the situation ===
Okinawa is known as one of the Blue Zones, the areas recognized for its longevity. During the pandemic, the COVID-19 mortality rate in Okinawa has been in the top ten throughout the prefectures, thus increasing the risk for the older community to develop severe symptoms if infected.
Takayama urges the U.S. military to work together as one community living on this island to protect the elders by making sure to wear masks. As Duffy echoes Takayama, she stresses that the U.S. military members need to be respectful of the norms and expectations that the local community has.
“When we’re out in the community, we need to use our masks,” says Duffy. “If there is a potential to be within six feet with other people, then our masks should be on. As members of the Okinawa community, we, US Forces, have a role to play in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 by acting responsibly and respectfully to our local community. We want to share that we are all in this and that we care about the Okinawa community.”
Since April, wearing masks on and off base by U.S. military members has been required when physical distancing cannot be maintained. The Marine Corps has rigid safety protocols to ensure adherence to force health protection measures.
“As Marines, we pride ourselves on our discipline and we will ensure that leaders at all levels enforce preventive measures such as wearing masks, maintaining social distances, elevated hygiene measures both on base and in the local community,” commented Owens. “We share Dr. Takayama’s determination to work with our partners in the local community—particularly the medical, prefectural and municipal officials who have been at the forefront of Okinawa’s COVID-19 response—to prevent the spread of the virus.”
The fight to curb the virus is not over. There is no border when it comes to infectious disease. As a community living on the same island, the Marines and the Okinawa residents came together and will continue to cooperate together to control the spread of the virus both in the military and local communities.
“We have not been perfect but I think our approach has enabled us to mitigate the impact of the cases that we have had. When new cases emerge we will continue to implement appropriate preventative measures and to continuously re-evaluate them to ensure that our response is effective and appropriate,” said Owens. “We have worked closely and will continue to coordinate with local authorities so that together we could manage the situation island-wide.”