Transcript

U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Leaders Brief Reporters on Initial Entry Training in COVID-19 Environment

July 10, 2020
Major General Andrea D. Tullos, Commander, 2nd Air Force, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi; Major General Lonnie G. Hibbard, Commander, Army Center For Initial Military Training, Fort Eustis, Virginia; Major General John J. DeGoes, Commander, 59th Medical Wing, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas

STAFF:  Happy Friday and good afternoon.  I'm Commander Jessica McNulty and I'll be facilitating today's press briefing on an update on training in the COVID-19 environment.  Before we begin, I would ask that you please keep your phones and laptops muted unless you are speaking in order to prevent feedback and other distractions.

Today on the phone lines we have Air Force Major General Andrea Tullos, Commander of 2nd Air Force, whom is prepared to discuss the Air Force's operations for basic military training and non-flying technical training in the midst of COVID-19.

Also with us is Army Major General Lonnie Hibbard, the Commanding General for the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training, who is prepared to discuss COVID-19 mitigation measures and initial entry training and the Army's adapted training model.

Let me start with a quick communication check.  General Tullos, can you hear me, ma'am?

MAJOR GENERAL ANDREA D. TULLOS:  Loud and clear, thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you, ma'am.

General Hibbard, Can you hear me, sir?

MAJOR GENERAL LONNIE G. HIBBARD:  Loud and clear, ma'am, thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you, sir.

General Tullos, the floor is yours for opening comments.

GEN. TULLOS:  Okay, thank you.

So first I'd like to thank the media who are participating today and for reaching out to us.  It has been challenging under COVID-19 to get accurate and timely information out, both to the public as well as to our military forces.  So we're encouraged by the continuous engagement that we're seeing and I would offer that 2nd Air Force is always open to you for your queries.  And I appreciate the opportunity to tell you how the Air Force is continuing to train through the pandemic.

Our military readiness absolutely requires that we have trained and available forces to meet our national security objectives and we made the decision to continue training in a safe and effective manner after a significant amount of analysis and guidance from our public health officials and we continue to review these decisions on a daily basis.

The Air Force annually produces 40,000 total force Airmen at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, and that includes our active duty, Reserve and National Guard forces.  We're able to fight through the pandemic and provide quality Airmen because of a strong culture of safety, strict implementation of the CDC guidelines and mitigation of risks across our training pipeline.

Since the 15th of March of this year at -- at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, we've trained 8,700 recruits and they've been tested for COVID-19 upon entry, with 200 of those recruits testing positive.  That's a two percent positive rate over approximately four months of training and 60 percent of those positives have been asymptomatic.  All of those trainees who tested positive have since returned to training and none have required hospitalization.

Our success of fighting through has been attributed to our consistent screenings of all of our trainees, our enforcement of physical distancing and strict hygiene practices at all times.  We're fostering a culture of self-identification. We rapidly remove symptomatic personnel from the pipeline and we conduct thorough tracing activities to isolate or quarantine, as appropriate.  We've also committed ourselves to providing dedicated air travel from basic training to what we call initial skills training, when possible.

The addition of basic military training here at Keesler Air Force Base has successfully reduced the stress on Lackland's infrastructure while maintaining quality training and enabling us to sustain our production goals.  We plan to conduct training here at Keesler through the end of fiscal year 2020.

Our continuation of training under COVID conditions has required a team effort between our recruiters, our medical professionals, as well as our training wings.  It's demanded intrusive leadership across these organizations and it's most evident in our military training instructors, who are the reason why just two percent of our trainees have tested positive since the 15th of March and all have returned successfully to training.

I'm incredibly proud of how our Airmen have risen to the challenge and I'll turn it over to General Hibbard here before we get to your questions.

GEN. HIBBARD:  Thank you, Major General Tullos, and I want to thank you too -- for your time today, whether in person, at the Pentagon or -- or physically distanced for -- for this interview.  You know, the health protection of our force and our Soldiers is the Army's top priority.

As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts our nation, we continue our response plan to train a ready and modernized Army.  Because of the stringent health and safety measures adopted across our training enterprise, we have been able to quickly detect and respond to COVID cases that occur in the training base.

At any given day, there are approximately 46,000 soldiers training to become a member of the U.S. Army.  As of today, and as of the start of the pandemic, less than 2 percent of the Army recruits have tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival to basic combat training, and of those, 1.8 percent of those positives were all asymptomatic positive trainees.

All Soldiers who screen or test positive for exposure or symptoms of the virus are quarantined and given proper medical care and after recovery are cleared medically and returned to training.  Across our training centers, trainees, cadre, drill sergeants and support personnel are physically screened daily and drill sergeants conduct daily formal monitoring of those soldiers continuing to train.

Today, we will discuss the Army's adaptive training model known as the 2+8 and other mitigation measures used to protect our most valued asset, our Soldiers.  As our nation adjusts to a new way of life, the Army continues to adapt and innovate, protecting the health and safety of our people while maintaining the readiness of our force.

So again, thank you for your time and I look forward to your questions.

STAFF:  Thank you, ma'am and sir.  As a reminder for the media, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your question.  Also, please limit yourself to one question and one follow up.  We'll go to the phones -- lines first.  Tara Copp of McClatchy -- do you have a question, Tara?

Q:  Hey, thanks for doing this.  So could you walk us through once you -- all of these asymptomatic tests that came back positive, what happened to that recruit at that point and have you been able to get all of them successfully through basic training after they were cleared of the coronavirus?

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  This is General Tullos.  I can speak for the Air Force first.  So, someone tests positive when they arrive at basic training is removed from their flight and placed into isolation.  I can tell you that all of our trainees who tested positive upon arrival have recovered and been re-entered into the training pipeline.

Some of them are still in the training pipeline, so I can't say all of them graduated from basic training, but none of them have not graduated from basic training because of the COVID-19 virus.  Over to General Hibbard.

MG HIBBARD:  Yes, Tara, and for the Army it’s the same model.  So, those soldiers that test positive upon arrival are removed from their platoon, not a flight for the Army, until cleared medically to return to their platoon.

And at this time, based on the numbers, those that have been cleared have returned to training.  We've had one graduating class since the COVID pandemic has occurred and the rest of the trainees are still in training at this time.

Q:  Okay, thank you.  And one follow-up, please, if you may for the Air Force.  What's the status of the expanded training at Keesler?  Is that going to be extended into the fall and winter or was it just the one flight?

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  So, we resumed basic training at Keesler on the 2nd of June.  We had our first flight graduate today and we will continue bringing 60 recruits per week to Keesler until the end of this fiscal year, with our last shipment scheduled for the 29th of September.

We haven't made a decision with regard to extending that program or not and we will base that upon our requirements for Fiscal Year '21 as they're delivered by Headquarters Air Force, as well as our (inaudible).  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Moving to Ellen Milhiser of Synopsis.  Ellen, do you have a question?

Q:  Hi, yes.  Thank you so much for doing this today.  You all have a very, very high rate of people who are testing positive and are asymptomatic and yet you say you physically screen everybody every day.  If they're asymptomatic, what do you think you might capture and are you doing any kind of surveillance testing throughout the training period to capture that?

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  So, this is General Tullos from the Air Force taking this first.  So just because they're asymptomatic, we still isolate them if they test positive.  And I would defer -- I think I have General DeGoes on the line to talk about what the medical community is studying with regard to whether you're asymptomatic and whether you are still able to pass the virus on to someone else.

But, I will say, is we screen rigorously throughout training, regardless of whether an individual is in what we call restricted movement in their first 14 days or whether they are conducting training for the remainder of the time, during which time there are times where we have activities where we cannot maintain physical distancing. That includes both questionnaires, where the individuals are asked how they're feeling throughout the day, the monitoring by their training instructors who identify symptoms, as well as that culture of safety that I talked about earlier, where we're encouraging our trainees to come forward and talk about whether they're not feeling well.

In the past, I can say our culture was such that we had a kind of quote, "suck it up culture" where we wanted you to push through, regardless of how you were feeling, and that is absolutely the opposite of what we're encouraging right now.

We want our trainees to feel comfortable about coming forward if they feel like they have symptoms, so that we can not risk the health of the rest of the flight as well as the cadre, get them treated and get them back into training as quickly as possible.

General DeGoes, if you're on the line I would ask that you come up at this time.

MAJOR GENERAL JOHN J. DEGOES:  Sure.

So we began surveillance testing in early May initially with entry testing for every recruit.  So the first seven cohorts that we brought in from the 17th of March, we just tested via CDC guidelines when they had symptoms.  We had six positives for about 2,500 recruits during that timeframe.

Since then, every recruit that comes in gets tested on arrival, regardless.  So that's how we've detected the majority of recruits without symptoms.  We also added in late May, at the end of the restriction of movement, 14-day period, exit testing and we've picked up asymptomatic tests in that regard, as well.  And so, when General Tullos said 60 percent of our results have been asymptomatic, they were part of that surveillance testing.

Just one comment on what role do asymptomatic patients, people without symptoms with COVID, have in propagating the pandemic. It's really unclear.  The World Health Organization says they're not likely to be a significant propagator.  And again, we're talking about people who never have symptoms, not the two days prior to developing symptoms or presymptomatic.

And our experience in those first seven weeks, when we only tested people with symptoms, we didn't have any problem from not doing surveillance.  So, our experience is that those who never develop symptoms are likely not really important in spreading COVID.  Over.

STAFF:  Thank you, sir.

Moving to Haley Britzky of Task & Purpose.  Haley, do you have a question?

Q:  Yes, thank you.  General Hibbard, this is for you, we saw this week, I believe, what appeared to be text messages from Soldiers at Fort Benning who were sort of mentioning a backlog of new recruits who were arriving, who were being quarantined.  Is that something that is on your radar at all?  And are there currently guidelines in place for, say, how many new recruits can be quarantined at one time upon arrival?  And if a training site sees this many number of new recruits being quarantined, that they aren't allowed to bring in anymore, or what is sort of the policy around that?

MG HIBBARD:  Hey, Haley.  Thank you very much for the question.  Yes, that is up on my radar, as I'm the proponent for all the Army reception battalions.  And right now, as we continue to meet Army end strength, we continue to take trainees, and if they test positive within their first 24 hours of arriving at the training center, whether they're symptomatic or asymptomatic, they're put into quarantine.  And right now across the Army, like I said, we're running about a 2 percent positive rate that we have, and they stay in that situation for about a 14-day period.  And each of our Army training centers have a location set aside, a barracks, for those trainees and an overflow, if we happen to get more trainees than can fit in that barracks.

I saw the text messages reference to Fort Benning, at that location, and what they were doing is they have a facility called Kelly Hill where we used to do training at. They were getting up to standard for those trainees, because it had been unused for a period of time.  As we begin to use it, we realized there were some challenges with A.C. and a couple other issues in that building that we quickly jumped on, as we began to use those facilities, and that was kind of the genesis of those text messages.

Q:  Thank you.  And just to kind of get to the last part of my question, are there any guidelines in place for these training sites where, you know, there's only a certain amount of people that you can take at one time in those -- the barracks are certified and the overflow area?  Is there any policy on that in place?

MG HIBBARD:  No, ma'am.  We don't have a policy on the number right now.  We monitor that every week, and as the ATCs report they're getting closer to their capacity, we shift the trainees within our ability to another ATC that has capacity.  So, we're adjusting that flow based on the MOS  that that trainee is and the location where we can put those trainees.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Moving to the room, (Jennie ?) (inaudible), do you have a question?

Q:  Well, I have something I want to ask, but how is it you do overseas military training for these (inaudible)?  How would you do to (ensure that ?) these cases for overseas training, military training?

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  So, this is General Tullos.  So, I had a hard time understanding the question.  Was the question how are we conducting overseas training?

Q:  Overseas military training, like, you know, exercises (inaudible) --

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  So overseas military exercises, if I'm understanding it.  So, for the Air Force, the determination on whether to conduct our overseas military exercises is made by the combatant commander in conjunction with the component.  So as Second Air Force we don't make the decision but combatant commanders go forward with those training exercises based on their COVID conditions, then we provide support accordingly, and that could be to deliver trainers or military training teams to facilitate that, or evaluators.  And so, we respond on demand, and we comply with their condition for either restricting their movement prior to departure and providing protected travel to the training sites.  Over to General Hibbard.

MG HIBBARD:  Yeah, and for the Army, ma'am, it's the same model, we are responsible for ensuring our trainees get to the combatant commanders overseas, and then the combatant commanders, in conjunction with the component, will determine the type and the amount of training that they do.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Moving back to the phone lines, Kyle Rempfer of Army Times.  Kyle?

Q:  Hey, yeah.  Thanks for doing this.  So, I don't know if you guys mentioned this already -- my phone cut out earlier -- but I was wondering if you guys could talk a bit about graduation rates.  I know earlier in the process the Army had talked about how they had half the number of recruits going to basic training.  I was wondering if that's still the case for the Army.  And then if you could talk about also the Air Force, as well -- basically, your production rates, whether they're, you know, at full capacity, half capacity, somewhere in the middle.

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  So this is General Tullos.  So we are at what I would call over 90 percent of our traditional capacity, but we are at 100 percent production for what the Air Force is asking us to produce for the end of this year.  We had lowered our production to around 60 percent capacity when COVID began so that we could evaluate the ability of our trainers and the trainees to fight through.  But we have since ramped back up, and if that answers your question, I'll hand off to General Hibbard.

Q:  Yeah, it does, and I was looking for the same thing from the Army side, and then also, just maybe to put a more fine point on it, do you expect any sort of shortfalls at the end of this fiscal year that'll need to be made up next fiscal year?

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  So, for the Air Force right now, our headquarters has adjusted our target to, we started at 38,000; we're down around 35,500.  But, what that accounts for is we are actually retaining above historic norms.  So, we are going to actually hit our end-strength ceiling with our current production rate. So we will not be able to produce more than the Air Force is asking us to produce, or we will hit our Congressional ceiling.

Over to the Army.

MG HIBBARD:  Yeah, Kyle.

For the Army, we're actually sitting in the same situation as the Air Force, because right now we're filling, as of this last week, at 90 percent fill for all three compos arriving into the training base.  And you'd asked about a graduation rate, of that, and we're still graduating -- we're actually graduating better than we had previously at about 92 percent of those actually graduate from initial entry training and move to their first unit of assignment.

Reference our end-strength numbers, our numbers, our target is in flux, as the Air Force mentioned, because end strength is the combination of recruiting and retention, and because of the current environment in the civilian sector our retention is also through the roof, and headquarters D.A. keeps adjusting our targets to keep us within guidelines of our Army end strength.  It will not be because of our ability to recruit, (inaudible) that we see.

STAFF:  Thank you, Generals.

That's all the time we have for questions today.  General Tullos, ma'am, do you have any final words?

MAJ. GEN. TULLOS:  I'd just like to offer some final facts for the role that the media is playing in helping us fight through for the support that you give to our forces on a daily basis, and for helping us get the facts out as we know them, and for being patient with us as COVID conditions change and we have to alter our procedures accordingly.  So, again, thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you, ma'am.

General Hibbard, do you have any final words, sir?

MG HIBBARD:  Yeah, I just want to echo General Tullos' comments.  I want to thank the media for their efforts in getting the message out to the public about what the services and the Army are doing to protect those that come into the service, and I want to thank you for your time, joining us today.

STAFF:  Thank you, generals, both.  I hope you have a wonderful rest of your Friday a wonderful weekend.

This concludes today's press briefing.  Thank you.