(CNSNews.com) - The rapid spread of COVID, even among fully vaccinated Americans, is taking a toll on the U.S. Defense Department.
On Monday, the Pentagon "officially" went to HPCON Charlie -- or Health Protection Condition Charlie, meaning there is "substantial" sustained community transmission of illness.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the HPCON level was raised to level 3 out of 4 "to protect our workforce, their families, our communities, and our support to the absolutely critical mission of this department."
"We are monitoring the conditions in the areas surrounding the Pentagon and any change in HPCON level will be based, of course, upon an analysis of those conditions," Kirby added.
He urged all DOD employees and their eligible family members to get vaccinated and boosted.
"Of course, as you know, the requirements under Charlie are more significant," Kirby said. "You can see that here, just in the briefing room. We went down to, I think, eight seats. But we continue to, you know, require people to wear masks as appropriate and social distance. And...following all the other CDC guidelines as well."
In its announcement, the Defense Department said the transition to Health Protection Condition Charlie on the "Pentagon reservation," as it is called, results from "an extremely high rate of new cases and positive test results" for COVID-19 "within a 30-mile radius of the Pentagon.
"Significant upward trends, the rise in positive case counts, including the current spread of the Omicron variant, as well as the consideration that the majority of our workforce is fully vaccinated, weighed heavily in the decision to adjust safety plans and force health protection measures to mitigate risk and reduce the spread of COVID-19."
The step up to HPCON Charlie from HPCON "Bravo-plus" means:
-- Maximum telework opportunities and flexible scheduling when possible to optimize the workforce while defending our nation,
-- Cancellation of in-person gatherings (such as school, daycare and all community activities) and restricted ability to travel.
-- Limited access to supplies and services, including severely restricted access to military installations.
-- The Pentagon Reservation will remain closed to the public for tours, and the 9/11 Memorial will also remain closed with the exception of pre-approved activities.
-- Gatherings on the Pentagon Reservation are limited to fewer than 10 persons.
-- Promotion and retirement ceremonies indoors should be discouraged or deferred when possible.
-- Food court and concession options remain available with no options for indoor seating.
-- Due to high demand and limited testing resources, other than the screening testing required for unvaccinated personnel coming to the workplace, asymptomatic testing on the Pentagon Reservation must be prioritized to personnel directly supporting mission-critical tasks.
Zero religious exemptions so far
COVID vaccination is required for all U.S. troops. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "continues to believe strongly, particularly after his own bout with COVID, that the vaccines really do work. And it really is, when it comes down to it, it's a readiness issue," Kirby said.
A reporter asked Kirby about religious exemptions -- none granted to anyone in the active duty military so far:
"The process by which religious exemptions are reviewed and adjudicated, and ultimately decided one way or the other is controlled by each of the military departments. The Army, the Department of the Navy and Department of the Air Force, Space Force," Kirby said.
"They are in charge of adjudicating those exemption requests and making those decisions. But in terms of your broader question, which is I think, you know, when -- does DOD still believe in the value of a religious exemption process for this or any other vaccine? The answer's yes, we do," Kirby continued:
We believe that there should be a channel vehicle through which men and women of the workforce who believe they have legitimate religious exemptions to seek on their behalf. That they have a process to make that request and to have that request treated seriously. I would remind that again.
I understand the numbers are zero right now in terms of COVID (exemptions). But even the services will tell you they still have a backlog of in some cases thousands of additional religious exemptions requests to work through. So, this is ongoing process, yes.