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NEWS | Sept. 18, 2020

JBSA support to evacuees at COVID-19 onset molded later responses

By David DeKunder 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

On Feb. 7, a plane filled with American citizens, evacuated from China at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Kelly Field. 

The plane would be the first of four flights in which nearly 400 U.S. citizens evacuated from China were flown to, screened, quarantined and housed at JBSA facilities from Feb. 7 to March 25. 

The operation was part of a coordinated effort between JBSA and federal agencies on the front lines responding to COVID-19. 

Lt. Col. Joseph Tortella, 902nd Civil Engineer Squadron commander and JBSA Emergency Operation Center director, said JBSA provided facilities for the screening and housing of evacuees flown from China to support personnel from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, whose personnel worked at the screening facility in Hangar 1610 near the airfield. 

“There were substantial lessons learned from the partnership and the operation that DHHS executed here at JBSA-Lackland that we were able to transition into our support posture for JBSA,” Tortella said. “The partnership was stronger than anybody could have ever hoped for. Since March, when DHHS left and we began supporting JBSA, our success has been rooted in that operation and that mission and that partnership we built with DHHS. 

“Our responsibility was to provide facility space only for the operation and everything else was executed by DHHS,” Tortella said. “All contract support, support needed for the facilities, transportation, everything, was all managed and executed by DHHS.” 

After the evacuees were screened by DHHS personnel at Hangar 1610, they were moved to Gateway Lodge at JBSA-Lackland, where they were quarantined for several weeks before being flown home. The DHHS personnel also worked within the Gateway Lodge. 

A total of 384 evacuees from China, from the first plane of passengers that came in Feb. 7 to the last plane that flew into JBSA-Kelly Field March 12, came through the screening area at Hangar 1610 and ultimately were quarantined at Gateway Lodge, with the last evacuees leaving JBSA-Lackland after finishing their quarantine March 25. 

The first plane that landed at JBSA-Kelly Field Feb. 7 contained passengers from Wuhan, China, and the last three planes brought evacuees from cruise ships docked in Japan and California on which passengers tested positive for COVID-19. 

The joint base also worked with another federal agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, which provided security for the screening area and Gateway Lodge. 

Tortella said the support JBSA provided helped DHHS accomplish their mission. 

“It was a large support response from the 502nd Air Base Wing in order to establish that capability here,” he said. “It was a substantial contribution from JBSA personnel.” 

Support was provided by the 502nd Operational Support Squadron, which provided hangar space for the screening area, facility, and flight line operations; the 502nd Force Support Squadron provided lodging at the Gateway Lodge; the 502nd Contracting Squadron served as the subject matter experts and liaison with DHHS on the execution of the contract between JBSA and DHHS for the use of the screening facility and Gateway Lodge. 

In addition, the 502nd Security Forces Squadron provided security within the installation, and the 502nd Logistics Readiness Squadron oversaw transportation and aircraft support for DHHS personnel coming off and on the installation. If needed, JBSA Emergency Services would also have provided fire and safety support. 

Tortella said during that time, anyone who was in quarantine who tested positive for COVID-19 was taken to a medical facility off JBSA. The facilities provided by JBSA were strictly used for quarantine purposes. 

Additionally, no JBSA personnel came in contact with anyone who was in quarantine, he said. Only those working with the evacuees directly, DHHS personnel and U.S. Marshals, came in contact with them. 

After the last evacuees left and DHHS wrapped up its mission March 25 at JBSA, the Gateway Lodge was transitioned into a quarantine facility for service members who have tested posted for COVID-19, including basic military training recruits. 

Tortella said the same procedures and protocols that were utilized by DHHS in quarantining the evacuees are the same ones JBSA is still using to quarantine and isolate service members and recruits on the installation who have tested positive for COVID-19.