What are Health Protection Condition (HPCON) levels? HPCON emerged as news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic increased; soon Americans were awash in medical jargon related to the outbreak and its containment.
COVID-19, sheltering in place, HPCON levels…there is much to keep track of when a public health emergency threatens the status quo and prevents life from proceeding as normal.
The new jargon–including HPCON warnings–can inspire fear and a bit of panic in some. It’s easy to read more ominous implications into new-to-you protective measures but HPCON levels are an important awareness-raising tool that are easy to understand and provide clear direction on what to do in each level of threat.
What exactly are HPCON levels and what should people do with this information?
The Department of Defense has a “protocol” for dealing with public health emergencies. HPCON is that protocol. These health protection conditions may seem familiar to those who remember the post-9/11 threat level indicators initiated at installations, military bases, and federal facilities worldwide.
In the same manner that those threat levels had a scale of potential risk, the HPCON protocol addresses a similar type of graduated threat from coronavirus and COVID-19.
HPCONs are reviewed and updated by DoD officials “based on risk levels within a local community” as well as working together with other, non-military authorities in establishing good coronavirus protection guidance.
Five HPCON Levels
There are five Health Protection Condition Levels:
- 0 (routine conditions)
- Alpha (limited)
- Bravo (moderate)
- Charlie (substantial)
- Delta (severe)
HPCON Zero (0)
Zero (0) is exactly what the name implies–there is zero threat, conditions are normal. The DoD labels this state as “routine” with nothing unusual to be concerned with. However, that does NOT mean there are no health guidelines issued for this level. The guidelines are very familiar to most Americans, and involve best practices for avoiding the spread of illness in general.
Those guidelines include:
- Avoid contact with sick people or those who display symptoms of being sick
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Cover your cough or sneeze every time
- Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth
- Make sure all immunizations are up to date
- Get a flu shot
In this stage, a limited health alert is active and the following guidelines should be followed:
- Maintain routine actions
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces often
- If you’re sick, call your medical provider for instructions before going to a clinic or hospital
- Notify your chain of command of the symptoms of your health threat
- Stay informed using reliable sources of information such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Remember, this is a limited severity level, but conditions may change quickly depending on circumstances. It’s best to assume that HPCON Bravo is not far behind, and prepare accordingly.
This condition is described as “moderate” and means there is an increase in community transmissions of the health threat. Use all prior advice from the HPCONs above, but add to those measures including these important precautions:
- Practice social distancing as a general rule
- Avoid unnecessary contact with others ESPECIALLY handshakes, hugs, etc.
- Avoid unnecessary travel
- Avoid non-essential travel to areas known to be experiencing active disease transmission
- Ensure supplies of food, medication, and all needs for babies and pets are available to last at least 14 days
- Prepare for travel restrictions and cancellations
- Avoid group gatherings
- Make alternative arrangements for childcare
- Check on DoD or command-level movement restrictions
- Strictly follow medical orders for self-isolation or quarantine
At Charlie-level, there is a substantial threat. It is best to assume that this threat level could be sustained longer than you anticipate, and that the next level (HPCON Delta) is a possibility depending on how effective containment measures are in your area.
DoD literature explains that Health Protection Condition Charlie means, “your area is experiencing sustained community transmission.” To comply with HPCON Charlie, you must take all previously issued guidance above, and add to it the following protective measures:
- Assume cancellation of in-person gatherings
- Assume you are restricted in your ability to travel unless otherwise instructed
- Plan for prolonged isolation with your family
- Prepare for the potential of limited access to supplies and services
- Assume restricted access to military installations, especially for commissary or BX use
- Follow remote work procedures as directed
- If outside the U.S., authorized or ordered departure actions may be necessary. Family member evacuation from overseas assignments may be considered on a case-by-case basis in times of emergency
The most severe Health Protection Condition Level. Delta means your community is dealing with a severe and far-reaching public health emergency. All prior HPCON level advice should be followed, with the following considerations added:
- Expect to remain at home for extended periods of time
- Assume restricted movement in your community is the norm
- Obey all stay-at-home isolation or quarantine directives
- Observe both military guidance and civilian authority; unless you are given express permission or instructions otherwise, assume that all protective measures and orders apply to you. Ask your chain of command for guidance if necessary.
The guidance here is from the Department of Defense, and your local commanders, state and local government, and other federal agencies may have additional advice, resources, or instructions depending on the nature and severity of the public health issue near you.
Remember that these are DoD guidelines for ALL public health crises, not just the outbreak of coronavirus in 2020.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
|State of Emergency||Stay-At-Home Order|
|What Does Shelter In Place Mean?||Martial Law|
|Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act||The Centers for Disease Control And Prevention|