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Col. Charles Roberts, Chief of the Arnold Engineering Development Complex Test Support Division, observes Arnold Air Force Base Contractor Security per­sonnel as they ask individuals entering the base a series of COVID-19 screen­ing questions as a requirement to be allowed entry to the base March 23. The screening questions were implemented beginning March 21. Security falls un­der the Test Support Division. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jill Pickett) (This image was altered by obscuring badges for security purposes.)

Even as local governments across the state prepare to reopen the economy with the April 30 expiration of the state's stay-home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Arnold Engineering Development Complex in Tullahoma, Tennessee, has announced efforts to keep the base operating as a measured return to full operation is in the works.

As a federal facility, Arnold isn't subject to the lifting of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's stay-home order at the end of the month, Arnold spokesman Jason Austin said, while remarking that Lee's order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus "likely benefited Arnold AFB."

Arnold has had an unknown number of confirmed cases of coronavirus among facility team members, which can include government and contract personnel. The first case was confirmed April 3, according to a statement issued earlier this month, but the Department of Defense doesn't allow case totals to be released, Austin said. State records show Coffee County, Arnold's home, has more than 20 confirmed cases countywide.

In a recent online town hall forum on COVID-19 response, Arnold Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty said the health of staff was most important and that he was proud that base personnel want to get back to work. Geraghty cautioned that any changes will be studied in light of the base's national defense mission and staff health.

(READ MORE: Tennessee engineer recalls work on Apollo at Tullahoma's Arnold Air Force Base)

Geraghty expressed concern about the continuing rise of confirmed cases in Tennessee and said his goal was to keep from having a single COVID-19 death on the base, and to avoid causing a uptick in transmission of the virus that stymies efforts to return to work on a long-term basis.

Geraghty described a gradual process to ramp up activities.

A return to work on the base will be "phased, thoughtful" and "staggered " and will include distancing and screening protocols and a limit to the numbers of people working or eating in the same area, he said during the town hall.

"One thing I definitely don't want to happen as we get back to work is we become a source of community transmission of COVID-19 and we have to shut everything down," he said.

Arnold should be able to ramp up operations "when conditions warrant — when the disease abates to a degree that allows for it — we can get back to work very quickly," Geraghty said in answer to a question from a town hall viewer. "We can get back to business. We don't have to wait for the economy to recover."

Related facilities across the country have already had varying levels of COVID-19 impacts at sites across the U.S., according to Arnold spokeswoman Jill M. Pickett.

Arnold's Tunnel 9 testing facility in White Oak, Maryland, temporarily halted operations for three days recently due to the governor's directive to stay at home, Arnold officials said.

Pickett said in the statement that more than 447 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Tunnel 9 is located, "but the facility is already up and running again after reconfiguring the control room and other spaces to enforce social distancing and other protective measures."

NASA also limited access only to mission-essential personnel at the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex at Ames Research Center in California, after the governor's order to shelter in place at home, Arnold officials said. Arnold manages and operates the facility at Ames.

Officials said the 704th Test Group at Holloman, Kirtland and Wright-Patterson air force bases and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, continues select tests while following the personal protection guidelines. Other geographically separated units at Eglin, Edwards, Peterson and Hill air force bases are likewise complying with local guidelines, officials said.

Geraghty praised base staff in Tullahoma, saying, "Those of you who get the mission done have acted with confidence and poise amidst all these changes."

Workers in supply warehouses at Arnold employ hand-washing, social distancing and hand sanitizer, and security and fire personnel and Arnold's Operations Center personnel are on duty around the clock, officials said. Steps to minimize coronavirus risks for those personnel benefited from a donation N95 masks and reusable cloth masks, officials said.

Meanwhile, all Department of Defense facilities remain at a minimum of "Health Protection Condition Charlie," officials said. From lowest to highest, health conditions for transmittable disease for the department are "0," "Alpha," "Bravo," "Charlie," and, the highest alert, "Delta."

The level of risk at "Charlie" is "substantial" and instructs personnel to:

* Expect cancellation of in-person gatherings (such as school, daycare and all community activities) and restricted ability to travel.

* Plan activities for family members, especially children, in case you are restricted to your home for prolonged time periods.

* Prepare for the potential of limited access to supplies and services, including severely restricted access to military installations.

* Airmen wearing protective garb gather near a car.

* Implement remote work procedures as directed by your employer.

* If outside the U.S., authorized or ordered departure actions may be implemented.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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Arnold Air Force Base Contract Security personnel ask individuals entering the base a series of COVID-19 screening questions as a requirement to be allowed entry to the base March 23. The questions include if individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who has tested posi­tive, locations of recent travel or if experiencing relevant symptoms. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jill Pickett) (This image was altered by obscuring items for security purposes.)
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