Department of the Air Force leaders take steps to thwart COVID-19 exposure while setting important examples

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

In this time of pandemic, the term – and practice – of social distancing is familiar worldwide. But Air Force senior leaders are using a close, but less familiar, cousin known as Blue Team/Silver Team to protect people’s health and improve odds that safe distances are maintained.

The idea is simple and effective – leaders including Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond among others are divided into separate “Blue” and “Silver” teams. Only one team at a time works from the Pentagon.

It is the Air Force variation of the “Red Team, Blue Team” approach promoted by Secretary of Defense Dr. Mike Esper.

“The team approach enables the department to protect service members, families and communities and it safeguards the mission and readiness,” Barrett said.

Aside from the benefits to public health, leaders said it reinforces the need to avoid crowds, to keep a safe distance and provide a clear example that safety practices must be rigorously followed.

“You’ll see the department’s senior leaders, myself included, practicing what we preach by splitting duty, teleworking and maintaining social distance,” Goldfein said. “This is what I expect at every echelon and in every circumstance possible so that we maintain strength through this global situation and continue to carry out the mission.”

As a new addition to the Department of the Air Force, the Space Force is committed to taking care of their people so its mission can continue.

“We are laser-focused on ensuring our space professionals and their families are safe. While at the same time, we are continuing to provide the critical space capabilities our Nation and our joint warfighters depend on every day, 24/7,” said Raymond.

The Department of the Air Force’s effort is part of a broader response dictated by Esper and Barrett to take extraordinary steps to protect personnel from a new virus for which there is no vaccine and for which people have no immunity.

For example, telework—where possible—has been encouraged for all active duty and civilian personnel across the vast DoD operations. All domestic travel for military personnel is halted until May 11 unless it's for mission-essential travel or humanitarian reasons.

On a more local level, defense officials have given directors of installation commissaries additional authorities to manage their inventory to provide the best service to military members and their families.

The Pentagon raised its health protection level to “Bravo” over the weekend and visitors to the Pentagon are forbidden and public tours have been suspended. Moreover, department personnel who have visited countries with significant outbreaks will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days before returning to the Pentagon.

“In order to do our part to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, we must take the precautionary measures set forth by Secretary Esper and Secretary Barrett very seriously,” Goldfein said. “Not only will this help prevent the spread, but equally as important, it will decrease the likelihood of infecting others who may not have the ability to fight COVID-19.”

The directives have clearly changed behavior. On March 16, for example, 12,000 people used their passes to gain access to the Pentagon. That number dropped to 9,800 the next day as personnel heeded calls to telework. Those numbers contrast sharply with a normal day before the coronavirus outbreak when, on average, 23,000 people swipe through the Pentagon entrances on a typical morning.

Wendy Kay, deputy director of staff, headquarters Air Force, helped to develop the system and adapt it to the needs of Air Force leaders.

“We’ve taken the lead of the Secretary of Defense to create as much social distance we can,” Kay said. “The intent is to minimize close contact and promote telework where practical.”

The effort applies to staff who must come in for work, Kay said, adding that the need to maintain safe distance has prompted creative responses.

For example, instead of crowding people into conference rooms as was common before the outbreak, Kay said that multiple conference rooms are linked by a secure teleconference line.

“And of course we’re wiping down surfaces with bleach and using lots of hand sanitizer,” she said. “Folks get it. We all understand the importance of doing this correctly.”

While the Air Force and Pentagon are aggressively moving to protect personnel, they are not alone. Across all federal government agencies efforts are underway to shield personnel from a virus whose scale and full threat are still uncertain.

NASA, for example, announced March 17 that all employees and contractors be moved to mandatory telework. The Social Security Administration has closed all of its 1,400 field offices to the public and is relying exclusively on phone and online services to assist people. The Internal Revenue Service is scaling back too, closing field offices in Northern California, the New York metropolitan area, Seattle and Puerto Rico along with all of its tax counseling sites for the elderly.

Federal courts are rescheduling trials and the Food and Drug Administration is suspending inspections of imported food and medical devices. The Washington Monument has closed to the public.