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Face masks, plexiglass, virtual meetings: Work at MacDill Air Force Base has changed, yet stayed the same

Tampa's military base has made adjustments to its daily work to keep people safe and meet its mission.
 
A masked service member of the 6th Air Refueling Wing security forces salutes a driver at the entrance of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16.
A masked service member of the 6th Air Refueling Wing security forces salutes a driver at the entrance of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published July 21, 2020

Go around MacDill Air Force Base these days, and you’ll see airmen preparing aircraft for inspection while wearing cloth face masks. You’ll spot tents outside of the base’s clinic. You’ll come across a front desk with plexiglass installed.

As COVID-19 cases continue to pop up in Tampa Bay, those who work at Tampa’s military base have had to adjust to keep their missions going while also staying safe.

“We’re taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously and following the guidelines of our medical professionals and trying to get after this,” said Col. Travis Edwards, the vice commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing.

So far, more than 20,000 service members worldwide have contracted the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Defense website on Monday. The local base does not release specific numbers, citing operational security, but last month, MacDill’s Facebook page included a statement that there had been an increase of cases on base, according to a base spokesman.

The 6th Air Refueling Wing’s goal is to have about 25 percent of its military and civilian staff working on the installation, with the rest working from home, Edwards said. And it is taking new precautions for those reporting for duty in-person, including those who pilot the planes.

Flight crews are working with the same group of people each day, so they can stand down as a group if a member must be quarantined, and operations can continue with another crew, Edwards said. Airplane maintenance crews are working similarly. It’s what base leaders call the “Bucs and Bolts” construct, or a team A and team B model, named after local sports teams.

Senior Airman Bryce Yelverton, left, and Tech Sgt. Spenser Thrasher, right, prepare an aircraft for an inspection inside a hangar at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16.
Senior Airman Bryce Yelverton, left, and Tech Sgt. Spenser Thrasher, right, prepare an aircraft for an inspection inside a hangar at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The unit also is getting more pilots in for more types of training in flight simulators, which allows them to wear masks and be in a setting more easily sanitized, Edwards added.

At MacDill’s 6th Medical Group, where almost everyone is considered “mission-essential,” staff members greet patients at a screening checkpoint and in tents in front of the base clinic, said Lt. Col. Casey Naumoff, chief of aerospace medicine and the base’s public health emergency officer.

Airman 1st Class Nicholas Gierach administers a COVID-19 test in the parking lot blocked off as the "hot zone" outside of the 6th Medical Group headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16.
Airman 1st Class Nicholas Gierach administers a COVID-19 test in the parking lot blocked off as the "hot zone" outside of the 6th Medical Group headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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Masked staffers ask patients coronavirus-related questions, check temperatures and evaluate the patients clinically to minimize the risk of an infected person going inside. That helps to protect the patients, the rest of the medical staff and the unit in general, Naumoff said.

Patients suspected of having COVID-19 are tested and sent home to isolate while awaiting the test results, he said.

The base clinic treats active-duty and reserve service members, plus military retirees and family members. For now, the medical group is conservatively scheduling appointments for procedures that could spread the virus through the air, such as teeth cleanings and surgeries, or anything that would require an intubation, Naumoff said. And they are encouraging patients to call in and see if their concerns can be handled over the phone. Some meetings among medical group members also have shifted to teleconferences.

From left to right, Airman 1st Class Alexa Martinez, Airman 1st Class Tabetha Gray, Senior Airman Talia Alvarado and Staff Sgt. Almarys Lopez Rosas operate a health care provider tent for COVID-19 testing outside of the 6th Medical Group headquarter at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16. Doctors and support staff work inside the tent while testing is administered at a blocked-off parking lot across from the building.
From left to right, Airman 1st Class Alexa Martinez, Airman 1st Class Tabetha Gray, Senior Airman Talia Alvarado and Staff Sgt. Almarys Lopez Rosas operate a health care provider tent for COVID-19 testing outside of the 6th Medical Group headquarter at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16. Doctors and support staff work inside the tent while testing is administered at a blocked-off parking lot across from the building. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The base has a limited supply of coronavirus tests, according to Naumoff, and is following the Air Force’s tiered testing criteria, which gives higher priority to individuals in a mission-oriented category.

“We’re looking to keep everyone as healthy as we can, but at the same time get the mission done,” he said.

Another unit on base, the U.S. Special Operations Command, which trains and equips units such as the Army Rangers, is allowing tele-work options for members of its headquarters staff, including for “self-identified ‘high-risk’ personnel,” spokesman Lt. Phillip Chitty said in an email.

Within the command’s headquarters, hand-sanitizer stations are at all entrances and exits, wearing face masks is mandatory in spaces where people cannot socially distance, and meeting rooms have “social-distancing personnel limits based on size,” Chitty said. Most meetings are done virtually.

Edwards, with the 6th Air Refueling Wing, said that even as more masks are visible on base and precautions are in place, they are able to get aircraft into the air and focus on their mission partners.

“It’s somewhat different, but in actuality it remains the same,” he said.

Airman 1st Class Halee McBride works behind plexiglass at the Airfield Management front desk at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16.
Airman 1st Class Halee McBride works behind plexiglass at the Airfield Management front desk at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on July 16. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

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