KADENA AIR FORCE BASE, Japan -- At the start of the pandemic, people around the world were left with questions about how to best protect themselves and their families against COVID-19. U.S. service members stationed at Kadena Air Base, Japan, were no exception. Japan reported its first case of COVID-19 on Jan. 15, 2020, and as the virus made its way across mainland to Okinawa, Team Kadena had one distinct advantage – its mission-ready posture.
On Feb. 12, 2020, the 18th Wing held its first Public Health Emergency Working Group to coordinate response efforts in the event of an outbreak on Kadena.
“A year ago, we were rapidly learning as much as we could about the ‘novel coronavirus’ and the threat it posed and we were concerned about what would happen if a Team Kadena member were to be infected with the virus,” recalled Col. Kevin Hettinger, the wing’s public health emergency officer. “Within the medical group, we were training, we were running simulations, and we were preparing to receive patients. We were preparing for the worst. It was the beginning of what would be a very long ordeal, but we have learned so much along the way and I think we have much to be proud of over the past year in terms of protecting the community and the mission from COVID-19.”
Operating from the keystone of the Pacific, Team Kadena members play a major role in regional peace and stability. With the threat of COVID-19 looming, units across the base worked hard to maintain operations while balancing the health and safety of their members and their families.
The PHEWG continued to meet regularly to discuss the evolving situation and on March 14, 2020, the 18th Wing stood up its Emergency Operations Center to oversee the COVID-19 response effort as well as coordinate with joint partners on Okinawa. Soon thereafter, the EOC and the PHEWG transitioned to Current Operations and Future Operations, respectively. The CUOPS and FUOPS teams, made up of personnel from across Kadena and covering a wide-range of specialties, have been the central points for collecting and disseminating information pertaining to the wing’s pandemic response. The daily battle rhythm includes a continual analysis of the current threat environment and impacts to the wing, which then drives discussions and decision-making by base leaders.
“A big part of informing leadership is having experts come together from across 18th Wing to provide decision-making support,” said Maj. C.J. Decker, 18th Comptroller Squadron commander and rotating CUOPS director. “It’s an entity set aside with the sole focus to protect the force and preserve our readiness. We’re tracking how COVID is impacting the local community, taking that information and working with experts across the wing to support the wing commander’s priorities.”
While the CUOPS cell examines data relevant within the last 24 hours to present to Kadena leadership, the FUOPS cell’s mission is to look a few weeks or more down the road to ensure the wing is best postured for response. Members of both CUOPS and FUOPS bring fresh perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking to problem solving. They also work closely with sister-services across Okinawa to share and collect information about countermeasures, trends and analysis data.
“Since FUOPS’ initiation, the team has continually assessed and reassessed the COVID threat and had deep discussions about how to best posture our response to it as it has ebbed and flowed,” said Maj. Travis “Baja” Church, FUOPS director. “These rigorous discussions and considerations have led us to heavily researched and considered recommendations that we give to wing leadership for their decisions.”
The FUOPS cell was also involved in the framework for creating many new processes, including the Restriction of Movement order. This order requires all personnel coming inbound to Okinawa to quarantine within their residences for 14 days. The members are tested for COVID-19 no earlier than the tenth day, while still in ROM, with ROM orders terminating after the test returns negative results and they’ve completed 14 days.
“FUOPS planned for the necessary ROM of all inbound personnel as well as lodging requirements for the outbound personnel,” Church said. “We pulled together data to consolidate the numbers of movers, dependents, pets, dates, lodging requirements. It set the bar for exit-ROM testing, which became the benchmark for the Joint Force.”
Of all the challenges faced by CUOPS and FUOPS, managing “PCS season,” or the busiest time for military moves, was one of the most distinct, according to Lt. Col. Paul Frantz, 718th Civil Engineer Squadron commander and one of a handful of rotating CUOPS directors. To solve this problem, his team worked alongside the two cells to create the Port to Final Residence Program.
“You always want to plan for two things: the most likely thing to happen, and the most dangerous thing to happen,” Frantz said. “We’ve had to adapt quickly to changing COVID circumstances as well as the associated fast-paced policy changes that apply to the combined team across Okinawa.”
The program expedites the time it takes to place service members into housing, saving many manpower hours in the process. The process was a joint force effort including all services on island who share billeting for installation housing.
“The main idea behind our Port to Final Residence program is, you figure out what house an inbound family is going to before they arrive. Once the family arrives they go straight to their final house co complete their ROM. This saves everyone, and most importantly the inbound family, the trouble of having to move multiple times after arrival. Frantz said. “We’ve supported families from all of the service components, and across all of Okinawa, with this program.
Over 44 percent of eligible inbound accompanied personnel took advantage of the program last PCS season; all together, this amounted to more than four thousand military and dependent personnel supported by the program. The program not only eases the process of moving, but also works in conjunction with the ROM order and allows families to complete their mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.
The Port to Final Residence and ROM programs aren’t the only successes seen during the pandemic. The 18th Medical Group has been instrumental in fighting the virus.
“From the earliest days of COVID in February of 2020, the lack of in-house testing capability was what kept me up at night,” recalled Col. Jay Veeder, 18th Medical Group commander. “At the time, we didn’t have any analyzers in-house and the Navy hospital was in the same boat. We were forced to mail samples back to the CDC in Atlanta to process our tests and the turn-around was 3-4 days,” Veeder said. “Luckily, we have some innovative and forward-thinking Airmen in the medical group and by April 9, Kadena was the first base in PACAF to have the in-house BioFire analyzers. This capability, coupled with establishing a route to fly bulk samples via military aircraft from Kadena to Camp Humphreys for processing, allowed us to get a solid sense of risk within the wing in a more-timely manner, which was key to protecting our force and the mission.”
Another concern was getting necessary medical supplies. Hettinger and his public health team saw how healthcare systems across the U.S. and other countries were increasingly strained due to the pandemic and medical supplies were critically low.
“The intent at that point was that we as a medical team needed to get on top of things very early on,” Hettinger said. “Logistics was a huge part in how we were going to manage what supplies we had on hand – having to make early requests to supply chains as supplies dwindled quickly on an international scale.”
Team Kadena maintained vigilance throughout 2020, adjusting guidance accordingly as the number of COVID cases on island fluctuated. In late December, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine arrived at the KAB medical clinic, bringing a sense of hope. Since then, CUOPS and FUOPS have continued to work with the public health team to ensure every eligible member is able to receive the voluntary vaccine if they choose to.
“Since the vaccine arrived, more than 3,000 doses have been administered to members from across the base,” said Master Sgt. Robert Snowden, 18th Dental Squadron dental support flight chief and CUOPS medical cell representative. “While daily operations involving COVID is still ongoing, it’s exciting to be in this stage of administering the vaccine to members who want it.”
The joint medical and COVID-19 working teams, who meet frequently to assess and plan for the base’s needs, have also been a critical part of mitigating the spread of the virus.
“Pre-COVID, there was already an organization of joint public health leaders that would typically meet once a month and tackle anything that was a public health concern across the island,” Hettinger stated. “Once COVID-19 came onboard, that public health leadership community went to meeting weekly to ensure we stayed synced.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the 18th Wing Public Affairs team has collected, translated and disseminated news and information concerning COVID trends and impacts to the local community on Okinawa. This information has been critical to keeping CUOPS, FUOPS and Public Health up-to-date on the threat environment and allowed them to make informed recommendations to base leadership. The 18th Wing has also maintained transparency with the local community throughout the pandemic, informing civic leaders and Government of Japan representatives of each positive COVID-19 case on Kadena and updates to installation force health protection measures as they’ve happened.
According to Hettinger, the relationship between Team Kadena and the local community also helped ensure the success of mitigation efforts on base.
“Our relationships with our public health representatives in the Okinawa Prefecture have made sure we have a very transparent plan,” Hettinger said. “The way that we treat is in lock-step with protecting both communities.”
Although a vaccine is available to eligible personnel for emergency use, it’s as important as ever to ensure the efforts of the community haven’t been in vain – every individual must continue to do their part to keep their friends and family safe from COVID-19 by wearing a face mask, social distancing, and regularly washing hands.
“Our greatest strength is teamwork,” Frantz said. “There’s no Air Force instruction for COVID-19. We’ve had to invent our own way, and I’m very pleased with what team Kadena has accomplished together. What folks need to do now is remember to stay vigilant.”