What to Know About Health Protection Condition LevelsUpdated: November 3, 2022
The term Health Protection Condition (HPCON) levels became more widely used as news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic increased. Many 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 prevents life from proceeding as normal.
Hearing jargon such as an HPCON warning for the first time can cause some people to panic. But HPCON levels are important awareness-raising tools that are easy to understand and provide clear direction on what to do in each level of threat.
Here’s what you need to know about HPCON levels.
HPCON is the Department of Defense’s protocol for dealing with public health emergencies. 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.
In the same manner those threat levels had a scale of potential risk, the HPCON protocol addresses a similar type of graduated threat from Covid-19.
HPCONs are reviewed and updated by DoD officials “based on risk levels within a local community” as well as working together with non-military authorities in establishing good Covid-19 protection guidance.
Five HPCON Levels
There are five Health Protection Condition levels:
- Zero (routine conditions)
- Alpha (limited)
- Bravo (moderate)
- Charlie (substantial)
- Delta (severe)
Zero (0) means there’s no community transmission and conditions are normal. The DoD labels this state as “routine.” 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 your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or into your elbow instead of your bare hands.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Make sure all your immunizations are up to date.
- Get a flu shot.
- Stay home if you’re sick.
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 and local health agencies.
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 these important precautions to those measures:
- Practice social distancing as a general rule.
- Avoid unnecessary contact with others, especially shaking hands and hugging.
- Avoid unnecessary travel.
- Avoid nonessential 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 of public events and community activities, including school.
- Avoid group gatherings.
- Make alternative arrangements for child care.
- 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.
The DoD says HPCON Charlie means “your area is experiencing sustained community transmission.” To comply with this level, you must take all previously issued guidance above and add the following protective measures:
- Assume cancellation of in-person gatherings, including the possibility of cancellations for day care and school.
- 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 base exchange 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 level is HPCON Delta. This 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 ask your chain of command for guidance if necessary.
The guidance here is from the Department of Defense. 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 Covid-19 pandemic.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News