FORT DRUM — There’s one word the garrison commander at Fort Drum uses to describe the way the local governments and the military post responded to the coronavirus pandemic — community.
Col. Jeffery P. Lucas, the commander in charge of managing the day-to-day operations of Fort Drum, said when the coronavirus pandemic first became a concern, local public health departments, medical facilities and other organizations all came together along with Fort Drum to tackle the problems as they arose.
“Almost immediately, our deputy here was in routine contact with our local community and elected leaders,” he said in an interview Thursday. “There’s always been a sharing of information between us, what we’re allowed to share.”
Starting from the very beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Col. Lucas said the leadership on Fort Drum had an idea of what was coming. The Army has installations worldwide, and Col. Lucas said information about how bases in countries hit by the pandemic earlier than the U.S. began to flow into Fort Drum.
Once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, with cases on almost every continent in early March 2020, Col. Lucas said U.S. military installations worldwide were already preparing. On Fort Drum, the first visible sign of coronavirus lockdown restrictions came on the weekend of March 13, just before St. Patrick’s Day.
“We closed our physical fitness facilities,” Col. Lucas said. “Things go pretty fast here. On that Friday, I came out of the meeting I made the call to close the facilities in, and when I went to the next event I saw they already had a sign out saying ‘gym closed.’”
At about the same time, Fort Drum officials had an in-person meeting with county, town and village officials from across Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties at the Jefferson County office building in Watertown.
“We were discussing what steps we were going to take with what we had available, what resources we had on hand,” he said.
Col. Lucas said everyone at that meeting understood Fort Drum was just as important as any other local stakeholder, and was just as ingrained with the community. Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray said there’s long been a sense of close connection with those stationed on Fort Drum.
“You have to give credit to the people back in the 1980s, when they reopened Fort Drum, they made the decision not to make it self-sustaining, and that’s really kept us close,” he said.
Unlike most other military installations run by the U.S., Fort Drum does not have its own hospital on-post. Soldiers are treated either at Carthage Area Hospital or Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown. Soldiers with families send their children to local schools, rather than a school on-post, and nearly half the troops stationed on Fort Drum with families live outside the gates.
Early on, Col. Lucas said officials on Fort Drum early on made the decision to share what information they were able to about the number of individuals on-post who contracted COVID-19. There is no requirement for them to do so, and Mr. Gray said he was very thankful they decided to share that data.
“We were mindful that they were under no obligation to work with us,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Defense does limit what information military installations are allowed to share about their situation on-post. While officials were able to share each time someone stationed on-post tested positive for COVID-19, they couldn’t provide demographic information on the individual who tested positive or share the number of active cases on-post at any one time. That’s one major reason Jefferson County never put together a public-facing map of coronavirus cases.
“We could tell our public health channels when we had a case, and they could count that,” Col. Lucas said.
Fort Drum’s test results were included in local coronavirus tracking information for the three counties, but Col. Lucas said he was happy to see the counties’ public health services never attempted to separate out Fort Drum’s cases from the rest. Col. Lucas said service members and their families make up about one-third of the population of the region, and throughout the pandemic Fort Drum’s positive cases represented about a third of all positives in the area.
“We’re not any more or less clean or dirty, if you will, in respect to the virus,” Col. Lucas said.
Col. Lucas said it was never possible to completely cut Fort Drum off from the surrounding communities, and collaborating with the local governments to tackle the pandemic was truly the only way to protect the force on Fort Drum.
There were still restrictions, some of which remain in place to this day. Non-essential visitors were banned from entering Fort Drum, those stationed on-post were initially required to stay within 40 miles of the installation, and most civilian staffers who run the services on-post worked from home or in staggered shifts. Soldiers were spaced out as well, work details had their schedules shifted and masks were mandated for everyone.
Col. Lucas said Fort Drum’s initial coronavirus health protocols were enacted before most of New York state’s went into effect, and stuck around much longer as well.
“As we got into last summer, you saw a number of prohibitions were gone, but we did not relax in the same way,” he said. “We were more restrictive than New York for a period of time, and then the state got more restrictive, then let up, but we stayed on.”
Eventually the travel restrictions for people stationed on Fort Drum were relaxed to a 350-mile radius, and then eliminated for anyone fully vaccinated. But the counties in and around New York City remain off-limits for any unvaccinated soldier on Fort Drum, and any unvaccinated soldier who travels out-of-state will still have to quarantine for two weeks when they return.
Col. Lucas said those restrictions for unvaccinated soldiers are becoming less relevant by the day, as Fort Drum continues to vaccinate anyone who they’re able to. The installation has about 50,000 people they are able to vaccinate overall.
Col. Lucas said the vaccination regimens initially proved to be a point of concern. Early on, Fort Drum received doses of the vaccine before other health care providers were able to receive doses, but only those in priority populations were eligible to receive them.
“We couldn’t just say we got ‘X’ amount of vaccines, let’s get ‘X’ arms in here,” he said.
At one point, Col. Lucas said he heard rumors that some local residents complained that soldiers shouldn’t be seeking out vaccinations at sites outside of Fort Drum, because they’re eligible to receive a dose on-post. He said he would have liked to see the Fort Drum vaccination system ramp up faster to cover more of their eligible populations, but ultimately it became necessary for some soldiers to seek a vaccination from another source.
Col. Lucas said all the public health agencies and health care providers in the region very quickly moved to quash those concerns.