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At MacDill, military families deal with travel cuts, child-care shortage and prescription limits

The Air Force base has reported no confirmed COVID-19 cases and no lockdown is imminent.
Col. Stephen Snelson, center, answers questions during a MacDill Air Force Base town hall streamed live on Facebook Tuesday afternoon. Joining Snelson, the base commander, were Col. Edward “Eddie” P. Phillips, left, and Col. Victor Weeden.
Col. Stephen Snelson, center, answers questions during a MacDill Air Force Base town hall streamed live on Facebook Tuesday afternoon. Joining Snelson, the base commander, were Col. Edward “Eddie” P. Phillips, left, and Col. Victor Weeden. [ Facebook ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020|Updated Mar. 17, 2020

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Travel restrictions, getting tested, and child-care demands are challenges facing every community as they move to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

At MacDill Air Force base, the only difference is that many of those trying to cope are wearing uniforms.

Col. Stephen Snelson, who serves as a de facto mayor of MacDill as commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing, took to Facebook on Tuesday for an online town hall to answer questions posed by dozens of participants.

He quickly shut down rumors that COVID-19 has been confirmed on the base or that a lockdown is imminent, then spent time explaining Department of Defense travel restrictions that have turned people’s lives upside down. On March 13, the Department of Defense gave the order to halt official travel by service members, civilians and their families until May 11.

In other words, personnel with orders to go somewhere else, on a temporary or permanent basis, are to stay put for now, instead.

One exception: Those scheduled to deploy overseas to stand against adversaries who predate the global pandemic. At least for now.

“This is not a snow day,” Snelson said. “You’ve got to be ready to respond if and when we call.”

He did acknowledge the tumult caused by the travel restrictions — the need for those caught in the middle of a move, for example, to check with their chain of command on what to do about personal belongings in transit. And he reminded those on leave that they must return by Friday to the local area — defined as within two hours driving distance from the base traveling at posted speed limits.

Travel for medical treatment is still allowed and exceptions can be granted where travel is for humanitarian reasons or extreme hardship.

Snelson noted that his time as base commander is up and he is among those scheduled for reassignment to another post, in May.

Two other topics that drew a number of questions at the town hall were medical testing and child care.

The base has COVID-19 test kits available for service members and dependents who meet the criteria established by civilian authorities, said Col. Victor Weeden, deputy commander and administrator for the 6th Medical Group.

Those seeking testing must call ahead to the main clinic at MacDill to verify they meet the criteria, Weeden said. Potential COVID-19 patients will be separated for testing inside the clinic.

Even as public and private schools have closed, including the on-base Tinker Elementary School, child-care services at the base have been deemed safe and will continue to be offered, said Lt. Col. Kimberly Lichte, commander of the 6th Force Support Squadron.

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MacDill’s Child Development Centers typically offer full daycare services to about 562 children.

Lichte apologized for communications during the weekend that may have raised questions about this. Still, fewer caregivers are available at the centers so service members were encouraged to keep children home if possible.

“We may have to make some tough choices depending on how many providers that we have available,” Snelson said in an earlier video.

Here are some other highlights of how the Tampa installation is dealing the pandemic:

Work restrictions. From Tuesday through March 29, the wing will transition to workplaces staffed by “mission esssential” personnel only.

Commissary hoarding. There are restrictions in place for certain items including paper products and sanitary wipes. Products have been flying off the shelves as soon as they’re restocked so Snelson asked for patience. “We’re going to keep filling up the shelves as best as we can," he said, "but I also ask people, please don’t panic buy. “Buy what you need, not just buy to buy.”

Prescription limits. Refills and new prescriptions are temporarily unavailable at the off-base Sabal Park Clinic pharmacy. Customers will have to use the main clinic pharmacy on the base. Urgent prescriptions and controlled drugs will be processed there the same day and other prescriptions will be available later for pick-up at the drive-thru.

Service cuts. The fitness center and other recreation centers have closed, according to the base’s new coronavirus website. Those currently staying at the base’s camping grounds will get a two week extension to stay until March 31 while all inbound campers will be halted. In addition, the 6th Air Refueling Wing legal office will limit help with matters including power of attorney, notary and wills to members who are deploying.

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