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AEDC commander urges continued vigilance throughout Return to Full Capacity

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --

To illustrate the importance of practicing the appropriate behaviors during the ongoing pandemic, Arnold Engineering Development Complex Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty during his June 24 virtual town hall turned the proverbial podium over to a member of Team AEDC to share how COVID-19 impacted her and the loved one who combated it.

The employee who detailed her experience during the broadcast had relayed her account to Geraghty and AEDC Superintendent Chief Master Sgt. Robert Heckman during their walkabout of the base performed earlier in the day.

The employee said that her husband became ill, prompting a visit to the doctor.

“They ruled it out as bronchitis,” she said. 

There was no improvement to his condition, leading to another visit with a medical professional. He was then diagnosed with pneumonia.

Again, his condition did not improve despite medication. He was taken to a local emergency room. Within three hours of that visit, he would find himself at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville with a new diagnosis - COVID-19.

Upon arrival at VMC, the employee's husband had an oxygen level of 82 percent. An oxygen level of at least 95 percent is required to avoid intubation, a procedure he had agreed to undergo if necessary. He was immediately hooked up to monitors, administered IVs and placed in a bed that automatically shifts at regular intervals to prevent the formation of blood clots in a patient's lungs.

Due to distancing requirements in place to prevent the spread of the disease, the Arnold employee knew it would be some time before she would see her husband again.

"I knew that at that moment that when they would take him away, I wouldn't see him, that would be it until he either got better or I buried him," she said. "When he left that day, I told him, 'If you don't keep your oxygen level up, they will put you on a ventilator, they'll have to intubate you and whether you come off of that or not, I really don't know, but I will not be there to help you, to guide you, to say anything to you.' So away he went, and that was it. I didn't get to talk to or see him for, probably, three days. By the third day, I think, was when he was able to actually find his phone and FaceTime me. I didn't hear from a doctor until the fourth day."

The man's oxygen level would climb to above 95 percent, so intubation would not be required. After undergoing six days of treatment at VMC, he was released. He has since recovered and returned to work.

The Team AEDC member who shared her experience said her husband is unsure where he may have picked up the virus that led to the disease. She also had a message for those who still believe the COVID-19 situation is not as significant as being reported.

"When you actually see your loved one taken away and you don't ever know if you're going to see them again, that's a big deal," she said.

After thanking the employee for recounting her experience, Geraghty asked those tuning into his Facebook Live broadcast to imagine going through a similar situation.

"I do want everyone to take some time to think about that personally, how that would work out for you in your life and your family if this disease personally affects you," he said. "I know some people like to kind of take the time to fantasize about what they would do if they won the lottery. What would you buy? Where would you move? What kind of trips would you take?

"Flip that for the situation that we're in right now and just think to yourself, think of an actual personal story about what life would look like if a member of your family got COVID-19. What would it be like driving to a hospital? What would it be like handing them off into the health care system? Picture yourself at home praying for your loved one while they're struggling through the night trying to breathe.

"That is the lottery we're all playing right now, and in order to make sure that we come out on the right end of that lottery, we are demanding the right behaviors out of everybody."

The second phase of the three-phase Return to Full Capacity, or RtFC, at Arnold took effect on June 15. This followed the implementation on the first phase of the RtFC on June 1, which itself came on the heels of an Operationally Urgent posture effected on April 6. During this latter posture, the personnel on base was significantly reduced and only test and support functions critical to national security were maintained.

The RtFC Phase 2 would only have been implemented if the workforce present at Arnold during Phase 1 could demonstrate they could mitigate the infection risk through the correct behaviors. 

These behaviors, which have been emphasized throughout Operationally Urgent posture and the RtFC phases, include maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other employees and the wearing of a protective mask when this is not possible. Mask wear is required in common areas across Arnold.

Geraghty said strict adherence to the proper behaviors is needed for Arnold personnel to keep themselves and their families healthy.

"It's all about social distancing, that 6 foot spacing, it's about mask wear, it's about sanitizing your workspaces, doing everything you can to make sure you are not sharing germs with other people," he said. "I know those simple activities are tough on some people. Some people are not comfortable wearing masks, whether that's for the physical discomfort or maybe it's an emotional discomfort; they don't feel comfortable wearing the masks, they don't feel it looks flattering or whatever it may be. 

"I appreciate those of you who have toughened up and just got through it and accepted that this is the new normal we're going to have to deal with. It is a big deal, and I appreciate what I have seen - the right behaviors out of employees and supervisors getting this done."

While Geraghty said he has observed during his base walkabouts that the Arnold workforce is following the guidelines well overall, supervisors across the installation are being called upon to conduct what he referred to as "spot reinforcement" of the risk mitigation measures to prevent the possible spread of the virus.

The workforce, which has increased in number with each RtFC phase, is also doing a good job of getting base operations back up to full speed to support the national defense mission, Geraghty said.

"I know people feel like they have a lot of catching up to do," he said. "I want to encourage everybody to please maintain that overall focus on getting the mission done safely. Do not rush to try to catch up to where you were. Do your work diligently and protect each other's health while you're doing it and we will get caught back up. This new normal is going to last a long time so let's enter it with a pace that we're going to be able to sustain and don't get ourselves hurt by running too fast trying to catch up right now."

Geraghty admits the two positive COVID-19 cases reported at Arnold since the implementation of Phase 2 has given him some pause. He said the RtFC framework, an outline of the phases used to implement the plan, does allow for the return to prior COVID-related operating postures if the situation calls for this.

"With our number one priority being to take care of the health of the workforce, this is a challenging balancing act here," Geraghty said. "How do we ensure we take care of the health of the workforce while we execute this mission? Like we said when we were establishing the Return to Full Capacity framework, we always retain that ability to regress to a previous stage, so we are keeping a close eye and close tabs on behaviors to make sure that we're behaving right to prevent becoming a source of community transmission. If it looks like we are, despite all of our best efforts, that we are becoming a source of community transmission, we will regress to a previous posture to protect the health of the workforce.

“Right now, we're leaning heavily on supervisors to protect the health of their teams and enforce those behaviors that we need, and we're relying on employees to keep those behaviors in mind and act right. But, if it turns out that we learn that's not enough, that that's not preventing the spread of the disease, that we are putting our people's health at risk, we are going to take the actions that are necessary to protect the health of the workforce and we will regress."

Geraghty added that there is no evidence Arnold is becoming a source of community transmission and that the individuals who tested positive since the implementation of RtFC Phase 2 work in separate locations on base.

"The supervisors are taking the right actions to do the contact tracing, to keep the people home who may have been exposed by the individual who tested positive, so we're keeping our eyes open," he said. "Supervisors are doing a good job of protecting the health of the workforce. Sometimes that requires a little bit of a mission sacrifice but, remember, priority number one is still protecting the health of the workforce, and I think supervisors are doing a good job of that right now."

Geraghty implored personnel to also remain cautious and keep social distancing in mind while off base, as he does not want another Arnold employee to have a story similar to the one who spoke at the beginning of his town hall.

"Please do be safe. Please take it seriously," he said. "We are all in a lottery. We are all in this lottery together right now, and we can make sure we have the right outcome of that lottery by taking care of other people. That's what it's all about."

The virtual town hall may be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/AEDCCommander/videos/263443761547286/.