Accessing childcare, managing stress and deciphering Vandenberg Air Force Base’s new regulations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic were some of the main topics explored during a virtual town hall hosted Wednesday evening by base leaders.
The interactive presentation, delivered through Facebook Live so as to maintain social distancing, was led by Col. Anthony Mastalir, the commander of the 30th Space Wing. It was the third in a series of town halls hosted over the past month by base leaders in an effort to keep the base’s military and civilian personnel informed on how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting life on base.
Mastalir, who was joined on the broadcast by several other officials, reiterated that there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Vandenberg. (Update: The 30th Space Wing announced Friday that the spouse of an airman at VAFB had tested positive for COVID-19.) Base personnel, though, will be ready if and when the virus reaches the installation, he said.
“That’s good; that’s where we want it,” Mastalir said of the base’s lack of cases. “We like zero. Either way, when we get the first one, we’re going to be prepared … to make sure that we take care of that person and we’re going to be prepared to make sure that we prevent the spread to others.”
In response to the health crisis, which has led federal, state and local officials to encourage most residents to remain at home for the foreseeable future, VAFB raised its Health Protection Condition, or HPCON, to “Charlie,” which is below only "Delta" on the five-level public health severity scale.
To explain what that means for people on the base, Mastalir and other health officials used a colorful chart titled “Public Health Risk Categories” and outlined the steps for the “Charlie” classification, which signals a “substantial” health threat, according to the Department of Defense, and is enacted when there is “sustained community transmission” of that threat.
Dr. Raymond Clydesdale, the 30th Medical Group commander, outlined the conditions under which someone would be placed under quarantine, isolation or in a 72-hour restricted hold.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, or is presumed positive, will be placed in isolation, Clydesdale said, while those who have been in contact with people who test positive or are presumed positive will be quarantined with fewer restrictions than those in isolation.
People who just don’t feel well will be placed in the three-day restricted hold and will be checked out by medics before being reintegrated back into normal life.
“It looks a little scary … [but] the intent of this is to reach the person and help them understand,” Mastalir said. “This is strictly a guide so that our population here on base understands exactly what to expect should you become ill.”
Mastalir and other officials, including the base’s chaplain and school liaison, spent the final half of the hourlong presentation fielding questions from viewers who were following along with the livestream.
A major concern from viewers surrounded the base’s child care options and who was eligible to use the on-base Child Development Center.
Base leaders confirmed that the child care center was available to all personnel who were considered essential and were therefore still working. Still, some viewers raised concerns about the safety of having children grouped together in one place, considering all the public health recommendations to maintain social distancing and avoid large crowds.
Lt. Col. Nancy Clemens, commander of the 30th Force Support Squadron, acknowledged that discrepancy, but she said the base is doing all it can to keep everyone healthy. That includes maintaining the recommended child-to-adult ratios, taking temperatures of everyone who enters the facility and keeping rooms at minimum capacity.
“I know that it’s contradictory to the large group and [other] guidances that we’ve been given as adults, but in all honesty we can’t keep the kids apart anyway,” she said. “If we have eight children in a room, they’d all be hugging up on each other like they do. Social distancing isn’t really an option for children at any age, but we are taking every precaution to make sure that we space them out as much as we can.”
Mastalir added to her comments by pointing out that child care will have to be maintained on base so that those parents who are considered essential workers can continue doing their jobs.
“We’re not going to stop defending this nation because of COVID-19,” he said. “The military is not going to stand down. Our national security mission will not stop, period. It will not stop. So we need the men and women of Team Vandenberg available to do their national security mission and that is why we’re keeping the [Child Development Center] open at this time.”
Among other topics:
- Mastalir said that base leaders were working to get more barbers at VAFB amid the outbreak. In the meantime, he encouraged airmen to do their best to maintain hairstyle standards but acknowledged that the guidelines would be more lax at this time.
- Mastalir confirmed that the commissary and base exchange store would remain open and available to on-base personnel. He asked that the 9 to 9:30 a.m. time block — the commissary opens daily at 9 — be reserved for seniors and others who are considered at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
- A viewer asked if toilet paper was still being delivered on base, and Mastalir confirmed that the base was receiving five deliveries of goods per week. He added: “At some point, I think you all are going to have a garage full of toilet paper, because I don’t know where all this toilet paper is going, but we’ll keep getting toilet paper in.”
- Retirees who live or work on base will still maintain their same access, Mastalir said, despite the base being currently open only to those who are deemed to have necessary business on base. “You earned those entitlements,” Mastalir said. “If you’re a military retiree, you earned those and we’re not going to take those away.”
- Mastalir commended the contractors who are still supporting the base’s various missions and added, “We could not do this without your support, and we are so glad that you're partners with us because I know that, like the military, our defense contractors won't let us down.”
Base officials also recommended that airmen and others on base find ways to exercise and stay fit while the gyms are closed. That includes mental fitness, they pointed out.
Base leaders said they will continue to work with airmen and provide resources on managing stress. One way, they said, is to focus on positive tasks and avoid cable news.
“We cannot have broken spirits,” said Ronnelle Armstrong, who serves as a chaplain on base.
Mastalir concluded the presentation by encouraging airmen to support one another and share ideas about how they are coping during this crisis.
“Our military families move all over the place; they move all over the world,” he said. “They have faced challenges, maybe not quite like this, but they have come up with unique solutions in the past, and I know that you’re coming up with them now. Share them with other folks that need those tips.”
The video of the town hall can be viewed at www.facebook.com/30thSpaceWing/videos/642676839851647/.
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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