Parris Island is the elephant in the room


By Mike McCombs

Monday was an anomaly over the past month and a half – there were no new cases of COVID-19 novel coronavirus reported for Beaufort County by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

The beat picked back up Tuesday with four more new cases. I would argue the beat is a lot faster.

Most of us have no idea what the coronavirus situation is in Beaufort County. Not this writer and not the readers. All because of a 19-square-mile elephant in the room.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

As the coronavirus cases started to add up in Beaufort County and the state, stories started to slip off the island of confirmed cases and quarantined recruits, Marines and staff. But the Marine Corps insisted there were no positive cases.

It’s impossible to know what goes on behind the scenes. But it was only when The Island News presented specific details about specific personnel that had tested positive that there was an admission they existed.

Not long after the Corps released that two Marines had tested positive, S.C. DHEC began listing positive cases by zip code. And then as soon as it started, it stopped, citing privacy reasons.

In the very first release, the numbers already betrayed Parris Island. Next to 29905, the zip code for Parris Island, there were three cases listed. While the base was still saying there were just two publicly.

Eventually, Governor Henry McMaster ordered DHEC to release updated zip code data.

Here’s where things got interesting. When they began releasing the data again, zip code 29905 was no longer listed.

The Charleston Post & Courier reports that DHEC stated that the 29905 zip code was merely for post office boxes and there were no residents under that number.

So why were any ever tallied for 29905?

The DHEC spokesperson has not returned my phone calls since March 30, so I can’t answer that. I spoke to her specifically about zip code 29905 that day.

Clearly, DHEC began tallying the Parris Island confirmed cases under a category titled “unknown.”

The total in that category reached as high as 54 before something amazing began to happen. It started to go back down.

The Post & Courier reports that DHEC began redistributing the Parris Island cases among the other zip codes, presumably with 29902 taking a large share, based on the current numbers.

In doing so, they admitted at least 40 of those unknown cases were “related to Parris Island.”

The U.S. military is no longer updating specific counts of confirmed cases on any installation.

An exact number of positive cases on Parris Island, now and going forward, won’t be made public, Capt. Bryan McDonnell, Director for Public Affairs for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the Eastern Recruiting Region, said at the time of that decision.

That decision came just prior, by the way, to the admission there were at least 20 positive cases on Parris Island, only days after there were just two.

The reality is the situation is likely much worse. DHEC said at least 40 were attributable to Parris Island a week ago. How many is it now?

A source told me last week that a specific building on base with close to 100 rooms was being used exclusively to house confirmed cases.

And how many more Marines, recruits or staff are quarantined?

The change in policy by the Defense Department came just four days after the Secretary of the Navy and the Marine Corps Commandant, in a press briefing televised live on Fox News, said communities could “expect transparency of all positive COVID-19 cases on installations within their communities.”

Clearly not.

MCCS – Marine Corps Community Services, the largest civilian contractor on base – has moved to essential personnel only on MCRD Parris Island. But there are still a large number of civilians that go to work every day on Parris Island then go home to their families at night.

It’s a big risk. For them and their families.

Clearly, the Marines have taken steps to stem the tide.

Parris Island is closed to the public. Graduation ceremonies are canceled, and leave for new graduates is no longer standard. Travel has been stopped for all U.S. military members by the Pentagon for a 60-day period.

There is a 14-day staging period during which new recruits will be medically screened and monitored.

And MCRD Parris Island is not taking any new shipments of recruits until things have stabilized.

“The Marine Corps continues to take an aggressive force health protection posture against the impacts of COVID-19. There are no plans to suspend training at this time,” McDonnell wrote last week. “As with the rest of the nation and the world, we continue to monitor the situation and are taking several steps to mitigate risk. This is an evolving situation, and we will continue making decisions with all available information to protect the health of the force and the readiness of the Marine Corps.”

Over the last couple weeks, a story emerged from the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific whose captain broke the chain of command because he felt his concerns about the infection on his ship wasn’t being taken seriously by his superiors.

Now he and more than 500 of his crew have the virus. And one sailor has died.

I’m not saying that will happen here.

I’m saying I hope it doesn’t.

Mike McCombs is the editor-in-chief of The Island News.

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