ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
Arnold Engineering Development Complex Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty described the virus that causes COVID-19 as a common enemy unrestricted by geographic boundaries, one that will require the appropriate behaviors to defeat.
A clear demonstration that the workforce can adopt these new norms will be necessary before AEDC leadership moves the Arnold Air Force Base Return to Full Capacity into its next phase.
Geraghty hosted a virtual town hall on June 3 to recap the events that led to the current risk mitigation posture at Arnold and to lay out expectations for the coming weeks. This broadcast, Geraghty’s seventh town hall since early April, came two days after Phase 1 of the three-phase Return to Full Capacity, or RtFC, was implemented at Arnold.
“I think we can reach a place pretty quickly where we exhibit the right risk mitigation behaviors to where Arnold Air Force Base is not a place where COVID-19 spreads from one person to another,” Geraghty said. “I think we can make it a place where the risk of the community spread of the virus is actually lower at work than it is out in the community. But it’s going to depend upon you.”
Geraghty said because personal behaviors primarily drive community infection of COVID-19, geographic hotspot restrictions for Arnold Air Force Base entry have been removed effectively immediately.
“However, that does not mean everybody returns to base immediately,” Geraghty said. “We are still in Phase 1 of Return to Full Capacity, so only those individuals who have been explicitly told to return to the installation as part of the Phase 1 workforce are to return to the installation.”
Screening for symptoms, close contact with individuals who have tested COVID-19 positive and foreign travel will continue.
To ensure Arnold does not become a source of community transmission and that the RtFC can move into Phase 2, Geraghty said personnel working on base during Phase 1 must continue to exhibit the proper risk mitigation behaviors. These include maintaining a physical distance of at least 6 feet, the wearing masks or appropriate face coverings when that distance cannot be maintained, regular hand washing and the sanitization of work surfaces. Members of the workforce are also encouraged to stay at home when they feel sick.
Additional risk mitigation measures, such as providing areas around the base with the proper PPE for personnel and sanitizers, have been taken. Geraghty conducted a walk around of Arnold the day of his town hall and reported to those participating in the broadcast that the installation is well-positioned to defend against the virus with the supplies on hand.
Geraghty said he observed that most, but not quite all, of the workforce is exhibiting the proper risk mitigation behaviors. He admitted some of the workforce may already be tired of such measures and that those returning to base in the future will likely tire of them quickly, but the correct actions must be demonstrated.
“This is going to be a part of the new normal,” Geraghty said. “It’s not going to be comfortable. It’s going to get old fast. As I mentioned before, there are some people who have only been at work since Monday and they’re already tired of it. I told them, like I’ve told everybody, ‘We’ve got to toughen up.’ We’re going to be in this posture for a long time.”
The same day as his most recent town hall, Geraghty also signed a policy that would enable Arnold to enter Phase 2 of the RtFC as early as June 15 if the workforce can effectively mitigate the infection risk through correct behaviors.
“Rather than wait for the environment to change to the degree that we really need it to change, which is going to take more than a year in my estimation, we decided to make sure we have the appropriate supplies and behaviors to mitigate the risk on our installations,” Geraghty said. “Once we can demonstrate that, then we’ll enter Phase 2.”
Once Phase 2 is initiated, supervisors across Arnold will have the responsibility of protecting the health of the workforce through measures such as permitting telework and will have the authority to strictly enforce installation risk mitigation policies.
“When we enter Phase 2, then the entire workforce may be able to return back to base but, again, it will be supervisors who will be able to tell you indeed that you should come back to the installation,” Geraghty said. “Some people will still be teleworking even in Phase 2, however, as long as we can demonstrate the right behaviors here in Phase 1 this week and next, we will enter Phase 2.”
Prior to the initiation of RtFC Phase 1 on June 1, an Operationally Urgent posture was implemented at Arnold AFB on April 6. This posture reduced the number of people on base by more than 75 percent as only test and support functions for missions critical to national security were maintained.
During an April 22 virtual town hall, Geraghty provided information on the risk matrix Arnold adopted from the Air Force Test Center to help understand, plan for and mitigate the risk to base personnel. At the time the Operationally Urgent posture went into effect, the estimated death rate for those infected with COVID-19 was 2 to 3 percent. PPE was also more difficult to acquire in bulk at that time. These factors prompted the decision to reduce the number of personnel on base to limit human interaction.
It was also around this time that AEDC leadership stood up the Return to Full Capacity Tiger Team, led by AEDC Superintendent Chief Master Sgt. Robert Heckman, to develop the framework to return staff to the workplace in a methodical, thoughtful fashion. Relying in large part on White House guidelines for opening up America again, the team initially came up with a four-phase RtFC plan. PPE and other supplies were ordered.
AEDC leaders received the green light to initiate the plan from Maj. Gen. Christopher Azzano, Air Force Test Center commander, and Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, after they were briefed on the plan.
In a town hall broadcast late last month, Geraghty provided information on the RtFC framework. At that time, the plan was divided into four phases – Phase 1A, Phase 1B, Phase 2 and Phase 3. The implementation of Phase 1A was dependent upon a flat or downward trend in COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period in the counties nearest Arnold AFB – Franklin, Coffee, Grundy and Bedford counties.
The initiation of Phase 1B was dependent upon a flat or downward trend in COVID-19 cases in Rutherford County, which was previously deemed a hotspot county and where around 10 percent of the Arnold workforce resides. After some in-depth analysis, the RtFC Tiger Team determined even a trend in the right direction in Rutherford County would not move Arnold into the low-risk level of the matrix from its current medium-risk level.
Geraghty said risk mitigation and working smartly in the medium-risk environment would need to be a focus, as Rutherford County would likely remain a hotspot area and the virus would remain present in the community for some time.
“This virus knows no geographic boundaries,” Geraghty said. “It is not going to help us to wait for Rutherford County to show a 14-day downward trend. As much as I would like that it would help us, it’s just not going to get us down to that low-risk posture. We have to figure out how to mitigate risk at our installations, in our work centers, while this disease is still around us.”
Along with this, as Geraghty prepared for his May 22 Commander’s Call to the Department of Defense workforce at Arnold, AEDC leadership received guidance from the DOD and AFMC that other installations around the Air Force were utilizing a three-phase nomenclature to bring their employees back to their workplaces. To remain consistent with other DOD entities, the Arnold RtFC terminology was altered to reflect a three-phase approach. Phase 1B was combined with Phase 1A, and the RtFC is now made up of Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3.
The RtFC framework allows for the regression to prior postures if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases among Arnold personnel.
“If we become a source of community transmission of this disease, we’ll have to regress back, probably all the way back to the Operationally Urgent posture,” Geraghty said. “If we can’t mitigate the risk enough with PPE and behavior, we’re going to have to just minimize people again. But I trust that we’re all going to be able to exhibit the right behaviors and, again, most people are already doing that.”
Geraghty said the Department of the Air Force has estimated that the new posture could last 18 months. He called on members of the Arnold workforce to work together to ensure the right behaviors become common practices.
“We’re going to get through this together,” Geraghty said. “Our priorities on the leadership team, the command team, remain the same — we’re going to safeguard the health of the workforce for the long term, we are going to execute the mission to the best of our ability, and we’re going to take care of each other.”
The RtFC framework may be viewed on the Arnold AFB coronavirus webpage at https://www.arnold.af.mil/coronavirus/.