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Goldfein: Air Force cargo planes moving coronavirus test kits; seven airmen have the disease so far

Seven active-duty airmen have been confirmed to have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said in a briefing with reporters Wednesday.

That number will surely rise, said Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, but it’s too soon to project how many cases the service could see.

“There’s a lot we still don’t know about the virus,” Hogg said.

Goldfein spelled out how the coronavirus crisis has — as with the rest of the world — upended life in the Air Force, as well as how the service might help respond.

The Air Force is still conducting its typical missions, including flying fighter jets and mobility aircraft all around the world and managing its two parts of the nuclear triad, Goldfein said.

The Air Force is generally younger and more physically fit — which helps people be resistant to the virus — than the population as a whole, Goldfein said, so it is not surprising that the numbers have so far been low. As for the identified cases, Hogg said the Air Force is identifying who has come into contact with them and taking steps to limit further exposure. This includes encouraging social distancing and only having a single point of entry for medical clinics so ill people can easily be identified and separated.

Hogg said that the virus is highly infectious, and one infected person can infect, on average, two or two-and-a-half other people. The Air Force is using that projected infection rate in its planning.

So far, wing commanders have not reported having any shortage of test kits, Goldfein said, but that is likely due to the relatively few cases the Air Force has had so far.

Goldfein also said the Air Force is ready to use its vast mobility capabilities, which it typically uses to ferry military personnel, supplies and equipment, to transport virus testing kits around the world.

“One of the things that we have is a rather robust global mobility portfolio,” Goldfein said. “We do all this working with and through [U.S. Transportation Command] commander [Army Gen. Stephen Lyons], who has that responsibility, and the TRANSCOM commander is closely connected with [the Department of] Health and Human Services to make sure we understand their demand signal."

Goldfein confirmed a report in Defense One that said an Air Force C-17 flew 500,000 test kits from Italy to Memphis International Airport in Tennessee on Monday, which is a FedEx hub that could further distribute the kits around the country.

Goldfein said he’s confident the Air Force can quickly move vast numbers of small test kits, if needed. But there are tradeoffs, he said — a cargo plane flying COVID-19 kits is one that is not performing its usual mission.

“We’re not limited, because we can move a lot of test kits on a C-17 or a C-5,” Goldfein said. “That’s not the issue at all. The issue becomes competing requirements.”

But it’s going to be crucial for Air Mobility Command to keep its pilots flying, Goldfein said.

“Global mobility into and out of Level 3 countries [which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have determined to have the worst outbreaks] has to continue,” Goldfein said. “Level 2 countries will migrate to Level 3. This is going to be a changing dynamic.”

AMC head Gen. Maryanne Miller is taking steps to isolate its pilots and keep them healthy, he said. These steps include taking pilots’ temperatures, screening them and social distancing.

“We consider the aircraft itself a clean environment, and so as long as they’re in that aircraft, they’re in an environment that is not of concern,” Goldfein said. “It’s when they leave that environment to go to their rooms or what have you [that is of concern]. So, we’re really minimizing movement and keeping them in that bubble, if you will, to make sure that we keep the force size we need to be able to maintain the missions.”

Goldfein said the Air Force is looking at its aeromedical capabilities to see how it can help ease the burden on other medical facilities.

However, he said, many of the Air Force’s medics are reservists who are already working in their local communities, so the Air Force has to be careful in how it might use them. The Air Force is working with states to figure out how it could mobilize those forces to support their communities.

The military’s medical structure is also best suited for trauma care, such as treating gunshots sustained in battle, Goldfein said. So the Air Force, through the Defense Department, might offer its medical expertise to HHS or state governors so they could handle trauma cases unrelated to COVID-19, such as gunshots, and therefore free up local hospitals or other civilian medical centers to focus more resources on the virus.

Hogg said the Air Force has the capability to transport contaminated patients, but TRANSCOM would take the lead on that and task the Air Force to conduct those medical evacuations.

Hogg said the number of patients that can be transported at one time varies, depending on how critical their condition is. Air Force medical support staff have been trained in isolation procedures, to be able to handle those patients.

But Goldfein said relatively few isolated patients — less than 10 — can be transported on a cargo aircraft.

Goldfein said the Air Force does not release statistics on its medical capacity, because those figures are tied to operational plans, but expressed confidence that they have enough beds and doctors.

The Air Force Academy, which last week decided to dismiss three-quarters of its roughly 4,000 cadets, is still trying to figure out how to proceed. All classes, except seniors or cadets 1st class, were sent home, because they are two or three to a room in the dorms and virtually impossible to maintain social distancing, Goldfein said.

Seniors will return from spring break after this week, he said, because the academy needs to figure out how to get them to graduation in May. Academy officials are trying to figure out whether distance learning is necessary, and if so how to conduct it, for the remaining freshmen, sophomores and juniors.

While the Air Force is continuing undergraduate pilot training, Goldfein said he’s leaving it up to local commanders to adjust flight schedules as they see fit.

The Air Force has new recruits scheduled to enter the service and report to basic military training for the next four to six months, Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly said.

Recruiting is also continuing and no offices have been closed so far, Kelly said, although with restrictions on travel and movement, the Air Force will have to increasingly rely on social media and other forms of online outreach to find new recruits. The mass closures of high schools, where recruiters commonly meet teens who are interested in military careers, is likely to make recruiting more difficult for the time being, he said.

Social distancing measures are also in place right to the top levels of Air Force leadership. Goldfein said he, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Seve Wilson and Secretary Barbara Barrett are teleworking intermittently. Goldfein said Tuesday was his first teleworking day, and he was back in the Pentagon Wednesday.

“We’re sending a message to every echelon of command in the Air Force that if the chief of staff of the Air Force can do it, then you can too,” Goldfein said. “I’ve got everything I need, both classified and otherwise, to continue to stay connected.”

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