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How A City Within A City — Key West's Navy Base — Has Responded To The Coronavirus

Capt. Mark Sohaney is the commanding officer at Naval Air Station Key West.
Trice Denny
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Naval Air Station Key West is like a small city within the Keys — so it's had its own response to COVID-19. There are about 5,500 employees and dependents, with an airfield, a port and annexes all over the island.

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With 30,000 square miles of unencumbered air space and warm weather year round, it's an important training base for Navy pilots. And it brings almost $1 billion a year to the local economy.

Capt. Mark Sohaney, the base's commanding officer, recently spoke with WLRN's Nancy Klingener about how NAS Key West has responded to the coronavirus.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


When the coronavirus started spreading, what was the response for the Naval air station and was it different from the city, county or state response?

We were very aggressive. Of course I've got complete authority as a base commander to establish protocols and orders within my purview so I was able to lock down the base much faster.

I've got about 1,000 hotel rooms and 500 RV spots and a lot of vacation rentals so we had to tell those leisure travelers that we need to shut down. It was getting the nonessential personnel off the base so we could focus on the active duty people and make sure that there was enough food and paper products in the commissary. And then simultaneously, the challenge was I have a Navy health clinic here and it's vital that we lock that down early. We only have a few doctors and they're kind of ground zero in something like COVID.

And that health clinic doesn't have overnight beds or an ICU or anything?

No overnight and no ICU so we're relying on Lower Keys Medical Center. If we were to see a surge in COVID cases and Lower Keys Medical Center was overwhelmed,, we have plans already on the shelf to evacuate active duty and their dependents via military air to other hospital facilities within the region.

The USS Detroit came into Key West for repairs in late March. The crew never left the pier while they were in port, because of the coronavirus.
Credit Danette Baso Silvers / Naval Air Station Key West
The Florida Channel
The USS Detroit came into Key West for repairs in late March. The crew never left the pier while they were in port, because of the coronavirus.

Even though the numbers in the Keys have been pretty low and you haven't had to lay people off like a lot of people in the tourism industry, it's still a scary time for pretty much everyone. Have you been concerned about morale or people's emotional states and have you been doing anything differently because of that?

Yeah. When you start taking people away from social interaction and then you add on the fact that their kids are not in school and the parents are basically having to facilitate schooling  — high stress environment. We recognize that.

Different people handle it different ways, but we're definitely starting to see some people stressed out, a little stir crazy, cabin fever, things of that nature and we're concerned. We've provided a lot of different outlets for service members to phone in and seek counsel before they do anything that they would regret. And I think right now we're getting over that slightly because I think the fact that they relaxed measures last week and they're going to reopen the Keys June 1, I think people are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

If the role of the military is to keep us safe and presumably that's why a lot of people sign up, is it frustrating to be in a pandemic situation where that's beyond your control just like it is everybody's?

No. For me, I've done a lot of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations in my career and I've been in the Navy for 33 years. So I've seen major earthquakes, I've seen impacts from 2013's Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I've seen the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

I think we in the military, we do a lot of those missions so we understand some of the fear associated with them and dealing with the public on recovery operations and those type of things and how challenging it can be. We train to this mission set, even though it's not our primary mission and we're very comfortable when we get called upon to execute that, we know how to do it.

Naval Air Station Key West, along with everyone else, is getting ready for the start of hurricane season. How has COVID changed those preparations for you?

It's changed it significantly. You know, if we have positive cases at the time of a hurricane, we've gone through scenarios of how would we evacuate those positive cases to keep them quarantined and isolated and move them to another facility so those COVID-like drills are what we added this year to our hurricane planning.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.