AFMC Command News

AEDC Commander discusses COVID-19 impact, looks ahead during third virtual town hall

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks

Arnold Engineering Development Complex Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty hosted a third virtual town hall April 22 to answer questions and provide updates on the continuing impact of COVID-19 at Arnold Air Force Base.

During the most-recent of the town halls, which he intends to hold weekly during the Operationally Urgent posture now in place at Arnold, Geraghty discussed what a return to base might look like and detailed how personnel could be brought back when the risk diminishes, among other topics.

An “Operationally Urgent” posture effect took effect at Arnold on April 6, just three days after the first positive case of COVID-19 was reported on the base. During this posture, some mission activities are curtailed and access to the installation is limited to those employees required to complete critical test missions and support functions. This posture also enhanced screening measures put in place at Arnold on March 21.

As he did during his April 8 and April 15 broadcasts, Geraghty made clear that his three main priorities are to take care of the workforce, execute as much of the mission as possible and ensure members of the workforce take care of each other.

Below are some of the questions from the April 22 Facebook Live session and Geraghty’s responses. The responses have been edited for clarity.

Q: When do you anticipate the “14-day quarantine after visiting a hotspot” being lifted?

A: I don’t anticipate the 14-day quarantine after visiting a hotspot being lifted. What I do anticipate is that our equation to determine a hotspot might change. That was one of the best practices that we got from regions and Air Force bases that had experienced this pandemic before us that had figured out ways to keep their workforce safe and healthy and still continue to execute the mission. That was a key feature – make sure people who are going to or living in or interacting with those hotspot locations, don’t let them bring that increased risk into your workforce.
The exact definition of what is a hotspot, that’s something we’ve put a lot of thought into. AEDC’s experts on the medical questions and the statistics and public health are looking into “What’s the right way to characterize a hotspot?”

Initially, when we first got started with this, we did the best we could with the data that we had from the Centers for Disease Control and from our local Tennessee Public Health Department and then the health departments in Maryland and California with the data that they were putting out online. As that data has started to change, and now as every state in the Union has passed that threshold of what we thought was a hotspot, we have to kind of refocus on the central question we’re trying to answer with the hotspot questions, and that is, “Where are those areas where the community transmission of this disease still presents a significant risk?”

It may still be across the entire United States right now, and it may still be increasingly encroaching upon us at Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee right now, but that doesn’t mean that we have to just stick to the same formulas we started with a month ago or so when we first established those. One of the things I have the team looking into this week is perhaps we start to subtract the recovered cases from the number of total cases so that what we come up with is the number of active cases. We recognize that the number of total cases is going to start to rise with the increase in testing. For example, the testing event in Manchester this weekend creates the potential that there’s just going to be a lot more cases in our local counties because we’re testing more.

So I also have the public health team and our medical experts here at AEDC reaching out to their counterparts throughout the Air Force and consulting with the Surgeon General’s staff to make sure that we have good criteria for how to add hotspots to the list and when to remove them. Again, I want to remind you that we’re still entering the peak times of infection, so it’s definitely not a time to become complacent, although I know the nature of the conversation has changed a lot to, “Hey, when are we going back to work,” rather than, “Hey, how are you all protecting my health?”

I want everyone to remember that we are entering what’s probably going to be the peak rates of infection. The team at AEDC has not lost focus on priority number one – protect the health of the workforce. But we are looking into ways to change that equation on the hotspot list.

One of the ones that just crossed the 100 cases threshold this week, for example, is Bedford County. That’s another county closer to us than the previous counties that had crossed the 100 threshold. We looked at it yesterday and we thought about subtracting out recovered cases from total cases, bringing it back down below the threshold, but then we run the risk of creating a little bit more confusion. The reason I say that is because they are likely, even if you subtract the recovered cases from the active cases, they’re so close to the 100 threshold still that we probably would have had to take them off the list today, put them back on the list tomorrow, and now you create a situation where the criteria is no longer simple or easy to understand. It adds uncertainty to the whole equation, so I asked the team to come up with a solid set of criteria that we could switch to at a decision meeting tomorrow after we’ve all thought through it, all asked some good questions about the potential new criteria.

Again, hotspots are not shrinking right now. We anticipate, we hope, that they will start to shrink in May.

Q: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has stated that he is not going to extend the Safer at Home order that he put into place earlier in the month. Do you see that having any impact on Arnold Air Force Base or our operational capacity?

A: Potentially, and I say “potentially” kind of in a negative sense in the sense that, as we try to protect the health of the workforce, as people go out and start to interact again in the community, that creates the potential that the numbers of infections are going to go up again. As we try to reintroduce the workforce back to work in a controlled and risk-managed measure, if the numbers in the state of Tennessee and our surrounding counties, if the numbers of infections and infection rate starts to balloon because the social distancing, Safer at Home order has expired and parks start to open back up, those types of things, we at Team AEDC, we’re not going to hesitate to take care of priority number one, and we are going to protect the health of the workforce.

If the infection rates drive up and we can’t mitigate those severe and catastrophic risks down to the appropriate levels, what we’re going to have to do is tighten back up the risk mitigation posture and maybe decrease the level of mission that we’re able to get done.

That’s kind of the impact that I see it could have in a negative sense on AEDC. It could delay our ability to ramp the mission back up.

On a positive side, though, I know that staying at home has been difficult for a lot of people. The fact that the parks are going to open back up this Friday, I think it is, some of the state parks. It could be a very positive feature for people who are struggling with staying at home teleworking. If they can get out into nature and keep that social distancing and just get out and enjoy a hike or something like that, that could be good for the mental health of the workforce and families, as well. As long as we do it right and we’re looking out for other people in the way that we get ourselves back out into nature and we’re not congregating in large groups and not spreading the disease that we didn’t know we had, I think we’re going to be okay, and I think it could be a positive change.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the desire a lot of folks have to come back to work and continue our national defense mission?

A: I’m really encouraged by the desire. This is a tremendously important mission that we do here at AEDC, and I am really grateful for this workforce. They’re mission-minded, they’re national defense-minded, they’re patriotic, and I’m grateful for that. I look forward to getting back to something closer to normal, something closer to the full mission soon, as well.

One of the conversations I had today with one of the leaders of one of the big contractors, National Aerospace Solutions General Manager Dr. Rich Tighe, was the idea that one thing we’ve got going for us here at AEDC in terms of getting back to work sooner is that we have an urgent and important national defense mission that, when conditions warrant, when the disease abates to a degree that allows for it, we can get back to work pretty quickly. That is we don’t have to wait for the economy to recover in order to get back to work on base. There are other places where people work where, even once people get back out into the economy, that particular sector of the economy might not be ready for business yet because people just don’t have the money to spend on it. Ours, thankfully, is not like that. It’s national defense. And when the risk picture is right to get more people back into the buildings to start working on site, we can get back to business and we don’t have to wait for the economy to recover before we get people back to base.

I am thankful for this eager workforce. I’m thankful that you’re maintaining a positive attitude and a positive outlook as this starts to get a little old, this COVID pandemic defense posture. I know it’s going to start to feel like it’s getting a little bit old, and I can feel everybody’s anticipation for getting back to base. I do appreciate the positive attitudes and your understanding that getting back to base depends first upon priority number one and taking care of the health of the workforce so that we can return to base safely and return to the mission for the long-term. One thing I definitely don’t want to happen is that as we return to base, we become a source of community transmission of COVID-19, and then we have to shut everything down and go back home for an indeterminate amount of time.

The return of the mission is going to be phased, thoughtful. We’re going to apply that risk matrix before we bring people back, and it’s not going to be an undoing of the posture we’ve established. Talk to your supervisory chain about what the outlook looks like for you. It’s going to be different across the whole enterprise in terms of what missions might start to come back when.

I did attend some planning meetings this week with some of the teams who have urgent national security work in May that they need to start preparing for and start to bring some people back to base. We worked through some of that this week. That’s the type of meeting that I expect we’ll have more of going forward, just thinking through the risk mitigations, how many people we’re going to bring back to the installation for what missions and what buildings, how do we make sure that we’re not taking an unacceptable amount of risk when we do that.

It’ll be kind of a stair step approach getting back to base.

Q: When we look at allowing personnel back on the base, do you anticipate it being done in phases where we bring back a certain sector of the workforce versus another one or maybe stagger who’s coming on base when? What do you see that future return to operations looking like?

A: It definitely will be phased or staggered or kind of packeted. I can’t think of a better way to term it than that but, like I said, this week we talked through one of the missions that needs to get some important testing done in May. So we talked through how do we set up the control room for that test so that everybody has their 6-foot spacing, so that we have fewer than 10 people in the room, how do we make sure that we have enough of a workforce to safely conduct that test after we’ve cut down on the number of people who would otherwise have been a part of that test, how do we make sure that we still have the safe number of people to conduct the test at less than 10 in any given room. We talked through a lot of that. We went over diagrams of what the control room is going to look like. We talked about positions and who is going to be a part of that, coming back in on what dates, and it was kind of a stair step approach – “We’re going to need these 40 people on this first week, then we’re going to need another 50 on this next week.” We talked through things like if the infection rate starts to come back or one of these members of this team gets sick, how are we prepared, are we prepared, so that if one of those team members got sick we would have to send that entire team who is in that room or that control room away for another 14 days to self-quarantine and make sure they didn’t pick up COVID-19, as well. It is part of our current screening posture that anyone who has had “close contact” with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is restricted from base for 14 days. Our supervisor-led contact-tracing measures ensure that the “close contacts” of those who test positive are notified.

We’re just thinking through all of that to make sure that we have a good plan, a good risk mitigation plan and a good operations plan for conducting this mission under a new normal or a new abnormal. But it’ll definitely be phased.

I’ve also tasked AEDC Superintendent Chief Master Sgt. Robert Heckman to lead a Tiger Team to think through that longer term, think through the reopening of AEDC for the longer term because, as you would imagine, as you’ve probably heard in other forums, as states start to open back up, as businesses start to open back up, it is not going to be an open back up to normal. It’s going to be something different than we’re used to. It’s going to be an open back up with social distancing. It’s probably going to be an open back up without the common areas that we liked so much before this pandemic hit – an open back up without the CafĂ© 100 to congregate and go get your food, things like that.

He’s gathering a team of experts from across AEDC and interacting with all of the right functional experts at the Air Force Materiel Command, and he’s a part of all the same meetings that I’m a part of to make sure that we’re in sync across the whole Department of Defense, up and down the chain. He’s starting with that framework that we received from the president, the reopening America framework, which describes a phased approach to getting back into business, too, and one of the key areas there is the disease has to be on the decline before we even enter phase one of reopening, which is a decreasing of the curve.

Q: Last week you spent a considerable amount of time talking about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and how it impacts our base. Are there any updates you want to provide on the CARES Act?

A: Thanks to the expertise of the leadership team at AEDC. They put a lot of brainpower into that question this week and last week and probably over the weekend, as well, thinking through exactly what authorities I have regarding the CARES Act, what kind of flexibilities we have, and what’s the situation there, just so we make sure we understand the complete picture.

We had a good, long meeting on that today with great discussion and, really, the bottom line outcome that’s relevant to this whole group is that what I said last week really still holds true, which is that the CARES Act, right now, gives us perhaps some flexibility but no funding. So the only flexibility I have to pay the contractor workforce is to take the money I would otherwise pay them in June, July and August, pay them now, then we’d run out of money in June, July and August and everybody goes home without pay. That’s not the right answer.

I love everybody. I know people are suffering right now. I would love to be able to ease some suffering with some kind of pay, but I’m also going to love you in June, July and August, and I don’t want to create more uncertainty by taking your June, July and August money, giving it to you now and then sending you home without pay later in the year.

Congress is very aware of the situation, my chain of command is very aware of the situation, this lack of funding in order to fully implement the CARES Act, even in order to continue our mission throughout the fiscal year. I know Congress is working hard on potentially figuring out another relief bill and trying to get that approved and passed, so we’ll wait and see. I know your political leaders here in the state of Tennessee are very concerned about the situation, as well. We’ve had requests for information regarding what our financial situation is, so I know the right information is flowing and I know that people care but, unfortunately, I don’t have any better answer, really, than I had last week.

Q: When we start coming back to work, do you think there’s going to be new ways we do work and flexibility in the ways we do work as far as telework and other things of that nature?

A: Yes, I think so, and I think a lot of this telework posture is going to remain in place for quite some time, the posture that we’re in right now, even as we start to reintroduce larger parts of the mission that take more people to do. If you can still get your mission done and still get your work done from a telework perspective, that is a way to reduce the risk of transmission to anyone else on base. I expect a lot of that to remain, a lot of telework to remain.

I encourage supervisors, leaders and teams at every level to think through how to posture ourselves for the long-term based on the things that we’ve learned from this experience so far - “Are there new policies we need to put in place to enable the right amount of telework versus in-person work?”- questions like that.

Some things are going to change, and I don’t think any of us necessarily know what those are, but if you as a leader or supervisor or a frontline Team AEDC member just getting the job done, if you see a better way to do this for the long-term for your particular mission and all you need is some policy changes or some kind of resources, some kind of change into layout of your work center, things like that, by all means talk to your supervisor. Supervisors, bring that information up. Let’s make the very best out of this very difficult opportunity, if you call it an opportunity. It can be an opportunity for positive change if you look at it with the right attitude.

Q: During this Operationally Urgent posture, we’re focused on some clearly specific tests. Can you give us a flavor of what those tests are and maybe what flight regime we’re testing, those types of things?

A: Yes. Big picture, we were thinking through, “What are the operationally-urgent missions?” We went back to the National Defense Strategy, we looked at the Secretary of Defense’s direction, we looked at the Chief of Defense Acquisition’s direction to the industrial base about what are the most important things to get done.

The most important things to continue getting done for national defense include our nuclear defense. That underpins our ability to project force across the globe and make sure that American national security is upheld. After that, we’re looking at hypersonic weapons, which is an important feature of our national defense, and then future defense capabilities, as well.

At Arnold Engineering Development Complex, we’re proving the superiority of those systems that we’re going to have to use in potential fights five, 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now. We’re thinking through what are those most important programs that we’re going to need to prove out now so that they can advance to the next phase of testing or phase of procurement.

The town hall may be viewed at