CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Messages written in thick lines of colored chalk decorate eerily empty sidewalks. One reads “Quarantine keeps us safe” (with an exed-out portion above that would’ve read “Quarantine Sucks”.) The symmetrical lines of faintly colored military houses are quiet, with the occasional roaring boom of aircraft taking off or landing.
As the sky light dwindles late in the evening, Amanda and her daughter, Emory, scribble over a plain wooden fence with colorful images and a note reading “Love grows here.” A conventional message that targets the heart of the community and heals the soul of the crisis hitting millions of families across the country.
Like ocean waves, news of COVID-19 creeps further ashore the flat lands of Eastern New Mexico. What started three weeks ago as big cities on opposite sides of the country confirming their first cases has become a pandemic shaking foundations untouched since 9/11. Families are faced with living situations unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. Those used to their usual routine are preparing for a new normal dawning.
“Our day started with a late wake up,” Amanda said, recalling her day involving the fence painting. “On a regular day, we wake up at about 6 a.m. That day, we woke up at 10 a.m. and proceeded through our new ‘normal’ routine. One hour of school work, chores, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk and a family walk through the neighborhood to check on the paper Easter eggs we put up for the neighborhood kids to find on their walks.”
Amanda’s husband and Emory’s father, Bryce, a 33rd Special Operations Squadron remotely-piloted aircraft pilot, spends most of his time sleeping off-duty due to his mid shifts. Bryce is one of the few Airmen at Cannon who still work regular hours due to the mission-essential status his unit is labelled.
“We are still flying all combat lines with no change to mission set or sortie times,” he added. “We have just shifted to a minimum-manning mindset, keeping as few people on shift as possible. It has increased the workload for those who are on shift but allows us to complete the mission with as little risk of contamination or spread as possible.”
The changes Bryce has faced reflects how thousands of others’ lives are changing across Cannon. Since isolation orders were placed to minimize essential personnel’s possible exposure to COVID-19, many have either had their hours reduced or asked to work from home completely.
With verbiage from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, base leaders such as the 27th Special Operations Wing commander, Col. Robert Masaitis, have created plans to specifically maximize safety precautions while maintaining mission readiness.
“We all have concerns about what we do at work and how that can translate into risk when going home to interact with families,” Masaitis said. “We’ve pared down shift sizes, split people up and adjusted work schedules. I assure you it’s to the minimum amount at which we can still keep our Airmen safe while staying ready to deploy when we need them to go. That requirement hasn’t been lifted from us at this point.”
Some of those mission-essential personnel include members of the clinic’s hotline response team, such as Airman 1st Class Sinead Brosnan, who’s an aerospace medical technician. Before the outbreak, Brosnan screened patients, started IV’s and took vital signs. Now, she’s working 12-hour shifts answering phone calls. Changes like these are happening throughout the clinic, according to Capt. Rachel Rivera, a women’s health nurse practitioner.
“We have adapted by becoming flexible with the increase in shift hours and are remaining resilient during this time,” Rivera said.
According to Rivera, 90% of her team is currently working at the Public Health hotline to stop the spread of wrong information and quell community anxiety. Although she is less available to patients and has to juggle two high-demanding jobs at the same time, she personally relies on what the Air Force has given her to get through it all.
“I think my resiliency training has, in a way, helped me prepare for this situation,” Rivera said. “My medical training has also allowed me to critically think in this time of crisis.”
Some other challenges her team is dealing with is the information battle: in order to know how to help callers, they have to know the answers before the questions come in.
“The biggest obstacle I’m currently facing is keeping up to date on everything,” Brosnan said. “This virus is changing daily--even hourly-- so to keep up with it before the public does is sometimes a challenge.”
Brosnan says a lot of the calls she answers are about reassuring people. Her responses regarding COVID-19 include providing correct information and informing them about how some of the new processes work, such as the drop-off point for retirees to pick up medication.
“We’re doing a point of distribution (POD) service, our current method of operation, to minimize risk of exposure,” said Col. Sanjay Gogate, 27 SOMDG commander. “We may add more PODs in the future depending on how long the COVID-19 crisis goes on. Of the 1,500 retirees on base, we’ve called each of them. We’re trying to flex as much as we can to meet our retiree’s medical needs.”
After wrapping up her 12-hour shift behind the Public Health Hotline phones and heading home, Brosnan says she calls back and checks on her parents that are currently living 1.5 hours from New York City.
“It’s spreading like wildfire out there. Thankfully, they are doing well as of now.”
These medical personnel are fighting multiple battles on the frontlines and in their homes, keeping themselves, their loved ones and others safe. Their sacrifices are something 27 SOW command chief Chief Master Sgt. Hope Skibitsky praised during a live Q&A hosted on Cannon’s Facebook page April 6.
“Hang in there, Cannon,” she said. “This is uncomfortable. It’s weird being away from the people we’re used to being around. It makes me miss what makes us Cannon, which is spending time together and supporting each other. That doesn’t mean that we can’t. It just means we have to do it in a different way.”
For some, “different” looks like spending more time at home and wondering what they can and can’t do. For Amanda, it’s finding ways to make these trying times memorable in the best ways.
“My youngest daughter is having the hardest time adapting to our new way of life,” Amanda said. “She is very outgoing and loves to play with her friends. Since she cannot safely do so right now, I am trying to find ways for her to fill her metaphorical bucket and maybe give her some good memories throughout this process too. I don't want her to look back on this period with sadness. I want her to be able to look back and say, ‘I remember when everything shut down, but I also remember the really fun things we got to do and the time we got to spend with our family making the most of a crazy situation.”
They did so last week by coloring 50 paper eggs and hiding them throughout the crowded neighborhood area. Families living nearby have since learned of Amanda and Emory’s contributions and have thanked them.
“That’s what it’s about--bringing the community together for no other reason than to make somebody else smile,” Amanda said.
Amanda’s personal life has been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Both her sisters have been laid off from their jobs in Florida, and her own family have endured drastic changes to their daily lives. Yet, she chooses to surround herself and others with messages of hope and strength, and urges everyone to learn from their situations.
“I hope we see our essential workers for just what they are: the backbone of our entire country and what kept so many of us comfortable in such an uncertain time. Life might not ever be the same again, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.”
As a health reminder, please continue practicing social distancing of a minimum of six feet in public and regularly washing your hands. If you develop any symptoms characteristic of COVID-19, please call the Public Health Hotline at 575-784-2728.