County says MCMWTC Covid outbreak should not trigger new restrictions; at least 60 Marines infected

By Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

An outbreak of at least 60 positive Covid-19 cases at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center located near Walker/Sonora Pass junction has triggered fears in Mono County that the explosion of cases could send the county backwards onto a more restrictive state Tier, if the cases are counted as part of the county’s population base.

Currently, Mono County is in the “Moderate” or “Yellow” Tier. If all of the Marine Corp cases (within a two-week period looking back from the day the state makes its assessment which will likely be soon) were counted as part of the county’s cases, it would very likely send the county into a “Red” or “Purple” Tier, which would force businesses and other operations into a more restricted operating format.

The cases have been traced to a group of Marines who arrived at the base for training from North Carolina the first week of October, a base spokesman told the Times Wednesday. The Marines were put on “restricted movement” in the two weeks prior to their arrival at the base, but once they arrived and began training, he said, some positive cases began to crop up, resulting in the current outbreak. The Marines are currently being isolated, treated and tested at the base with no involvement of Mono County Public Health. However, the base is in constant contact with the county health department, he said, and all cases are reported to the county daily. He also said every Marine within the exercise group, along with symptomatic individuals, close contacts and permanent personnel are being tested.

The question about the possibly impact of the outbreak to the county itself comes down to one word: if. If all or most of these cases count, further restrictions are coming, according to Mono County officials, noting that in other county’s with military bases, outbreaks of the local base residents do get included in the county’s case count.

However, Mono County might have a better chance at convincing the state not to include the Marines from this particular facility as part of the county’s cases and this is why, according to Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless, who also said the county is strongly advocating to the state that the Marine base outbreaks do not count.

“One, this base is unique, it is not like other military bases where they might live in the county for a year or more,” she said. “Rather, many of the Marines who arrive at the base are only here for a short time for training, before they are deployed to other assignments. Two, in this case, the outbreak was within a short -term training group and it has not spread outside of the group and into the housing facilities in Walker or into the rest of the Mono County’s communities or schools at this time because while the Marines are training, they are a largely contained unit with very little to no interaction with the rest of the base or the county. Three, the base is already responding appropriately and is tracing, testing and doing medical care.”

She said the county is working daily with the state to clarify its reasoning. She also said there is an adjudication process wherein a county can dispute the state’s process used to decide on which Tier a county is assigned to and the county is prepared to use that process, if need be. She noted that it isn’t the data itself the county might dispute, but whether or not the cases should be assigned to the county in the first place.

At press time, the issue had not been resolved.

But there is no doubt that the answer will have a big impact on Mono County, already slammed by a short summer and a fall of smoke and closures of nearby public lands, should the state chose to move the county into a Red or Purple Tier.

As a local business manager said Wednesday to the Times, “If I have to shut down again, I might not be able to ever re-open.”

That, along with other reasons, is why the county is taking such a proactive effort to advocate for an exception to the state’s Tier assignment process.

In addition, “The MCMWTC is working diligently to coordinate appropriate response and continues to work closely with interagency partners, including Mono County Public Health, to monitor the situation and implement appropriate measures to reduce further exposure both on the base, and within the community,” said Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Tom Boo, Mono County Public Health Officer in a recent news release.

“Currently, there is no evidence that the outbreak at the MCMWTC has contributed to increased community transmission outside of the Marine Corps community in Mono County, despite some increase in unassociated cases,” he said.