At least one Marine on board the Yuma, Arizona, air station has tested positive for COVID-19 as thousands of Marines are in town conducting an air and ground integration exercise deemed mission-essential by the commandant, a Marine official confirmed.
The large-scale air and ground coordination training officially kicked off March 8 and is slated to run through April 26. But the conclusion of training falls in the middle of a Defense Department domestic travel ban implemented March 16 to stem the tide of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Yuma city council held a town hall meeting Friday to discuss the latest developments regarding the rapidly spreading virus.
Diana Gomez, the Yuma health director, confirmed to worried residents the first “presumptive” COVID-19 case in the city — meaning an individual tested positive for the virus at a lab but is awaiting confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The individual who contracted COVID-19 is a Marine aboard the Yuma base. But Lt. Adara Story, a spokeswoman for Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One, said there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases associated with the Marines participating in the air and ground integration training.
“MAWTS-1 is taking the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense guidance on limiting the spread of COVID-19 very seriously and has been enforcing the proper health and safety practices,” she said in an emailed statement.
Yuma has roughly 104,000 residents with nearly 20 percent of the population over the age of 60 — a sizable population especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.
Residents have expressed worry about the thousands of Marines who recently descended into town for a large-scale air and ground integration exercise known as Weapons and Tactics Instructor course, which was deemed necessary by Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, despite the exercise ending in the middle of a DoD travel ban.
Col. David Suggs, the commander of the Yuma air station, participated in the town hall discussion to inform the public of ongoing efforts to thwart the spread of the virus.
Suggs attempted to quell some rumors floating around social media regarding large and crammed formations of Marines not abiding by social distancing guidelines. He also provided updated information related to Marines traveling from outside the country for WTI training.
Suggs said the Corps identified the first group of Marines headed to WTI who were traveling from outside the U.S. and the command restricted their movement on the base.
That group numbered roughly 40, and none to date have shown symptoms of the virus.
“We’ve put them under, I don’t want to say quarantine, because that has legal implications," but the Marines have been restricted to their barracks rooms with meals provided and are monitored by medical staff, Suggs explained.
Suggs said, on March 22, that group will meet the 14-day restricted movement period.
Suggs explained to residents that the Yuma base identified about 150 individuals traveling to WTI from high risk areas like California. He said those Marines have been placed under restricted movement, and are being monitored.
Suggs also said all service-members participating in the WTI exercise are currently restricted to the base.
The Yuma commander detailed during the town hall that the base since Monday has implemented a number of restrictions to help stem the spread of the virus.
As of Monday, no more than 50 Marines can congregate at one time. Suggs said he saw posts on social media showing large groups of Marines standing around in crowded groups.
One such photo was leaked to Marine Corps Times, which shows a large gathering of Marines on board the base not abiding by social distancing guidelines advocated by health professionals across the globe.
A Marine official, who spoke to Marine Corps Times on condition of anonymity, said the photo depicting the large gathering was snapped early Friday.
He told the Yuma community that those formations are no longer authorized. Suggs also explained that the Yuma base has roughly 5,000 Marines, and getting word to junior officers presents a number of challenges.
“I can tell you now there are no meetings greater than 50,” Suggs said during the town hall.
As of Monday, Marines assigned to the base are not authorized to go to bars or restaurants in town. However, they are can get takeout or pickup orders. Suggs explained these restrictions were made to protect service members but also the community.
Suggs also said the Yuma air station has closed the gym and exchange, and only 50 Marines are allowed in the chow halls at any given time. He said the base has shut off TVs and WiFi at the dining facilities.
Travel outside the base beyond 50 miles requires the approval of a lieutenant colonel or colonel, Suggs explained.
Story previously told Marine Corps Times in an emailed statement that the training had been deemed “mission essential training” by Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, “and will continue as planned.”
Marines will return to their home bases following the course Story said, despite a DoD domestic travel ban that runs to May 11.
The training exercise is supported by nearly 4,000 Marines with each Marine Air Wing and Marine Expeditionary Force providing support, according Story.
Gomez said Friday that efforts were underway to identify anyone who had direct or close contact with the individual who tested for COVID-19. But she said the patient was doing well.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.