The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, intends to test all cadets returning to graduate in June for the novel coronavirus using two new GeneXpert devices procured after the academy established a planning group in mid-March to determine how the process would work.
The return will be similar to how the Army has been bringing new recruits into basic training, according to a West Point spokesman. The planning group has also received input from Training and Doctrine Command on that process.
Cadets will return to campus in small, staggered groups. They’ll be paced in hard structures in the summer training area and wait there for tests results to come back, which should be the same day the swab is taken.
“If they come back clean, they’ll come on campus to their dorm room, and we’re calling it a soft quarantine,” said West Point spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt.
“They won’t be moving in big groups and having formations,” he added, saying that it’s still yet to be determined what that soft quarantine will entail because of constant updates to Center for Disease Control and Army guidance.
West Point also outfitted its hospital, which had an out-patient focus with an ER and elective surgeries before the pandemic, with a new intensive care unit that includes six ventilators if necessary. There were no ventilators there before.
President Donald Trump has been expected to speak at the graduation ceremony, though the pandemic left it unclear whether the ceremony would happen at all.
The New York Times reported Friday that the president’s announcement at a news conference that he was still attending the graduation caught West Point officials off-guard, though the Times noted that planning had already been underway even if it had not been announced. Cadets have also always known that returning to West Point would have to happen in some manner, said Ophardt.
“They were always told along the way that they’d have to come back, get their stuff, commission and go off to training," Ophardt added. "So they always knew they were coming back.”
It’s still undecided whether parents will be able to attend the ceremony. The Air Force Academy held its graduation last week featuring Vice President Mike Pence as speaker. Parents and family were unable to attend and the ceremony was livestreamed instead.
West Point’s graduation was originally scheduled to occur May 23, but is now planned for June 13. Cadets will likely start returning using commercial transit sometime in May, but those details aren’t finalized, Ophardt said.
West Point is roughly 60 miles from New York City. The major metropolitan area and New York state proper have been hotspots for the coronavirus pandemic. There have been more than 263,000 cases in the state, about 146,000 of which are in New York City.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently extended the state’s stay-at-home order end date to May 15. The order started on March 22 and was originally intended to end on April 15.
If the stay-at-home order is extended to a date past that of graduation, West Point would reassess the plan based on guidance from state, public heath and Army officials, Ophardt said.
Cadets were originally sent home for Spring Break and did not return. They instead have finished out their courses online. West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams declared a public health emergency at the campus in late March to align with local community and the state.
“To date, we’ve had eight teammates — three cadets and five civilian employees — who’ve tested positive for the virus. All eight are isolated and progressing well," Williams said on March 27 update. Since then, the academy, like all military installations, has been instructed by the Pentagon not to publicly release case numbers.
Ophardt said there have been only a handful of cases among cadets. There have been roughly 30 cases in the West Point community, which includes civilians working on the campus.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.