Bases Bring Back Mask Mandates as Coronavirus Variant Sweeps Through Unvaccinated Parts of America

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COVID-19 vaccination Mons, Belgium
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chris Fox, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccination Jan. 8, 2021, at the SHAPE Healthcare Facility at Mons, Belgium. (U.S. Army/Christophe Morel)

After a summer of loosened pandemic restrictions, military bases in communities where the contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus is exploding among unvaccinated Americans are requiring masks again -- even for inoculated troops.

Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the Army's largest bases and home of the 82nd Airborne Division, implemented a strict mask policy Friday for all civilians and service members, regardless of vaccination status, in all the installation's buildings, including gyms and child care centers.

"Effective immediately all personnel; soldiers, civilians and beneficiaries; must wear a mask indoors on Fort Bragg regardless of vaccination status. Additionally, unvaccinated personnel must wear masks in outdoor public spaces," a base-wide memo from the XVIII Airborne Corps said. "Vaccination is safe and remains the most effective prevention against COVID-19, to include the Delta variant."

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The new mandates come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended that Americans return to wearing masks indoors, especially in settings where the virus can spread more easily.

"Getting vaccinated and wearing a mask are our only pathways for bases to return to normalcy," Brig. Gen. Jason Woodworth, commander of Camp Pendleton, California, said in a video to the force Friday.

Unvaccinated troops have had to wear masks during most of the pandemic, and commanders have the authority to order an unmasked service member to provide their vaccination status. However, it's unclear how many commanders have been enforcing mask mandates or how well they can protect troops from the virus in training. During the Arkansas National Guard's recent rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, at least 115 soldiers were infected.

Most U.S. bases are reverting back to mask mandates, including Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas. All of those installations are in parts of the country the CDC has identified as having high risk of COVID-19 transmissions and death, which includes all states where the rate of vaccination is below the national average.

In Texas, which is home to Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, at least 239 people have died from COVID-19 in the past week, according to CDC data. Fort Hood is mostly in Coryell County, where only 37% of the population has received one dose of the vaccine, far below the national average. As of Monday, 57% of the U.S. has received at least one dose.

Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, said Fort Drum, New York, will not implement a mask mandate yet since the infection rate in that area is relatively low.

"As a community, we have done a great job getting vaccinated and following established protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19," Beagle wrote in a memo. "At Fort Drum, no additional safety measures will be implemented at this time since we are not currently in an area of substantial or high community transmission. However, we can't afford to jeopardize or lose the hard fought gains not only on the installation, but in our community as well."

Fort Drum is located in Jefferson County, New York, where 65% of the population has received at least one shot.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Many Soldiers Still Aren't Vaccinated; What's the Army's Plan?

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