U.S. Military Response to Coronavirus

DoD Testing for COVID

The Department of Defense has been on top of the coronavirus pandemic from the start. Sure there were some missteps – and in some cases overreaction and late responses. Although training and operations were significantly affected – the military was always ready to perform its mission. Things will slowly return to almost normal as the herd immunity becomes a reality due to past infections and vaccinations among the US population – and the military force.

The United States military response to coronavirus has taken place in a variety of ways and at many levels. It has adapted to conducting training and operations in the coronavirus environment in 2020 and now in the early stages of 2021. The military has taken measures to limit the spread of the virus within the ranks of military personnel and also assisted the nation in preventing the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 Update

The Data. For much of last year the US had a disproportionate number of worldwide reported COVID cases (25%) and deaths (20%) given the US percentage of the world’s population (4.5%). The United States still leads the world in COVID related deaths – at 535,000 as of mid-March 2021. Over the summer of 2020 the US was struggling more than any other country to contain COVID. Of course, data is always suspect – and the US failed to adequately track data about the coronavirus crisis in the first part of 2020.

US Population. The US population as a whole has experienced a huge number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. January 2021 saw a record high of hospitalizations due to the virus. Over the past year parts of the country suffered from maxed out Intensive Care Units (ICU) and a shortage of ICU hospital beds. Specialized equipment such as protective masks and ventilators were in short supply and high demand. Many hospitals were in crisis mode for long periods of time. Medical staffs serving in hospital emergency rooms and ICUs are experiencing ‘burn out’ from the medical crisis.

US Military. Due to stringent safety measures (wearing a mask, physical distancing, health precautions, working environment adaptations, etc.) the military is faring well when compared to the civilian population. As of March 16, 2021 only 24 members of the U.S. military have died due to COVID-19; while about 8% of military personnel have contracted COVID since the start of the pandemic. These numbers include active and reserve components personnel. The veteran community has been hit hard by the virus. Veterans Affairs patients experienced 150,000 infections with more than 6,500 deaths. Most of these veteran cases and deaths took place in the last few months of 2020. Several VA facilities and ‘Soldier’s Homes‘ have experienced a high rate of deaths.

Fact vs Fiction. It is difficult sometimes to pinpoint exactly what is the right thing to do as an individual or organization based on the public guidance provided by medical and government officials at the local, regional and national level. The guidance over the past year has been ever-changing and contradictory. In addition, disinformation by foreign nations (China, Russia, and others) as well as conspiracy theories advanced by some news media outlets contribute to the muddled picture of the virus. And, of course, the political parties took full advantage of the pandemic, sometimes distorting the facts, to advance their agendas – further clouding the picture.

Photo: Navy Lt. Kathryn Hrezo, a critical care nurse assigned to the Rural Rapid Response Team, checks a patient’s blood sugar level while working in the COVID-19 ward at the Northern Navajo Medical Center, Shiprock, N.M., Dec. 31, 2020. Throughout 2020 members of the military have augmented medical personnel in civilian medical facilities to deal with the burden of COVID patients. Photo by Spc. Ashunteia Smith.

How COVID-19 Has Affected the Military

The military’s death rate from coronavirus is extremely low when compared to the U.S. population in general. This is to be expected given that the military population is comprised of younger, healthier, less obese, and more physically fit personnel. Those members of the military who have been affected have seemingly recovered quite well compared to some people in the civilian population who have suffered long-term effects (long-haulers). Many military training activities and exercises in the United States and overseas were cancelled or scaled back. Military schools (Basic, Advanced Individual Training, and other training) were temporarily closed. With the surge of coronavirus across the nation military recruiters have been experiencing a high exposure and infection rate. At times the virus has forced the military to take drastic action – such as the emergency port call in Guam of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the spring of 2020 when a quarter of the 5,000 sailors onboard tested positive.

Adapting to COVID-19. The military has taken a number of measures to mitigate the threat of the coronavirus to its military personnel as well as to the conduct of operations and training. Some were very simple measures while others involved some significant changes to how the military conducted operations.

Mandatory mask use, stringent quarantine measures, regular and rapid testing, physical distancing, and other procedures have helped the military adapt to a COVID-19 environment. The Defense Department continually provides information and resources on a variety of coronavirus-related subjects for members of the DOD community.

20th SFGA Riggers Make Face Masks

Photo: Soldiers assigned to Group Support Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) assist with COVID-19 response efforts making personal protective face masks in Birmingham, Alabama. The GSB Riggers shifted their focus from parachute operations to full production of personal protective equipment in support of COVID-19 response. The masks were distributed to the Joint Forces Headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama to be disseminated to disinfection and medical teams across the state working on COVID-19 response missions. (U.S Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Cox, May 1, 2020)

Preventive and Mitigation Measures

The Department of Defense took immediate measures in response to the coronavirus. It adopted the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations of washing hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing a mask.

Face Mask Production. One of the first things the Department of Defense did was to put parachute riggers to work making face masks. Riggers supporting special operations units made protective masks for their unit’s personnel as well as for other units and local hospitals.

Army’s Official ‘Combat’ Face Mask. One of the Army’s latest uniform additions is the Combat Cloth Face Covering or CCFC. It only took almost a year to roll out the ‘official’ face mask for combat troops – just about the same amount of time to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. This ‘new’ face mask was rolled out in December 2020.

Swabbing and Testing. One of the simplest mitigation measures is testing for infection. Nasal swabbing has proven to provide some indication of the presence of the infection – although the accuracy of some of the tests is not always reliable.

Photo: Dr. John S. Baxter, director of the Pentagon Flight Medicine Clinic, conducts COVID-19 testing. Image taken by Lisa Ferdinando, DOD, March 14, 2021.

New Ways of Doing Business

Changing Work Routines. Many military units, where possible, instituted policies where military personnel, DoD civilians, and contractors could work fully or partially from their home. In many cases internet, email policies, and work-place activities had to be re-designed to adapt to this new work environment. By June 2020, more than a million DOD personnel were teleworking due to the pandemic.

Physical Fitness. Until the pandemic most military organizations held organized group physical fitness activities on a daily basis. COVID-19 has provided its fair share of challenges for maintaining physical fitness for military personnel and group physical fitness training has adapted. A video, entitled New Normal – Staying Fit, shows how the 26th Special Tactics Squadron has adapted to changes and kept fitness a top priority. 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs, Cannon Air Force Base, NM, September 29, 2020.

Virtual World. Initially many conferences, events, schools, and exercises were cancelled or significantly scaled back. A lot of meetings, were local or requiring travel, were conducted virtually using VTC formats or Zoom sessions. For instance, the Special Operations Command Africa conducted its annual Silent Warrior Conference online this year.

Overseas Locations. Many parts of the world where US service members are based have experienced low rates of coronavirus (Japan, South Korea, and others locations). This has been a boon for the US military operating in these regions; although safe health practices are certainly adhered to.

Remote Advise and Assist (RAA) and COVID. The pandemic has caused SOF, SFAB, and other military advisors working in conflict zones to refine how they conduct advisory mission. In person advising has yielded to other means of communication – such as phone, email, video conferences. One of the long-term effects of this RAA environment is how it will change how SOF military advisors will do their job in the future. “Global Special Operations: Advising and Mentoring in the Zoom Era”, Clearance Jobs, December 8, 2020.

Travel Restrictions. The Department of Defense came out with some early directives that drastically curtailed travel in the conduct of operations and training. These restrictions were in effect for the 48 states as well as host countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the UK). This guidance has been refined periodically as the rate of COVID-19 has increased or subsided. In mid-summer 2020 the US military lifted some travel restrictions and saw coronavirus cases surge. The latest guidance (March 15, 2021) can be found in this 5 page PDF.

Quarantine. Personnel and units traveling to or returning home from an overseas tour or exercise were usually put into mandatory quarantine. For instance, a unit redeploying after a nine-month tour in Afghanistan would find itself quarantined for two weeks prior to reuniting with families and resuming its normal activities. A unit heading overseas for a major training exercise could find it is spending two-weeks in the host country under quarantine prior to participating in the exercise. Individuals who are infected are instructed to shelter-in-place (homes).

Photo: Army Spc. Alexis Ruth, a health care specialist assigned to the Maryland Army National Guard Medical Detachment, prepares to administer a vaccine, Jan. 30, 2021, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.

Assistance to the Nation

The Department of Defense is assisting the nation in arresting the spread of COVID-19. Active duty and reserve component units and service members responded to the pandemic in 2020 -helping out communities and medical facilities. Two U.S. Navy hospital ships were deployed to New York and California to assist in the surge of COVID cases. Army field hospitals were set up to take on overflow patients from highly impacted hospitals. Ventilators were provided to hospitals running short. The Michigan National Guard deployed 1,000 members of Task Force 46 to as many as 15 states across the nation. There are a host of programs and projects that the Defense Department is engaged in to assist with confronting the pandemic. One of these is developing an advanced method of manufacturing N95 respirators for frontline health workers. Just a few of the many efforts on the part of the Department of Defense to assist are mentioned below.

Assistance to Hospitals. In the spring of 2020 the DoD mobilized individuals and units to assist in providing patient care to COVID-19 patients. National Guard units from every state assisted in nursing homes, testing sites, hospitals, and morgues. This assistance continues into 2021 with doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and support personnel working with communities across the country to cope with ‘surge’ cases.

Vaccination Teams. Currently DOD vaccination teams are assisting local communities across the nation – many co-located with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) vaccination centers. The DOD teams come from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Each team includes medical and support personnel – 15 for command and control, 80 for vaccination administration, 15 RNs, 57 clinical staff, and 55 general purpose personnel. In the past month over 500,000 shots in arms were made by these DOD vaccination teams.

Operation Warp Speed. The DOD played a major role in the effort to accelerate the development, testing, production, supply, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. Operation Warp Speed was instituted in May 2020 with the intent to deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines available by January 2021. The goal had not been reached. In a DoD statement (Jan 12, 2021) it was revealed that 25 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines had been sent to 16,000 locations throughout the US. However, by early 2021 the pace of deliveries had picked up. In addition, the DoD is involved in the purchase and distribution of Regeneron’s therapeutic treatment to use for non-hospitalized, high-risk COVID-19 patients.

Photo: The 48th Fighter Wing received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England on December 27, 2020. Photo by USAF.

Vaccine

Tremendous progress was made in the development of a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. The vaccines developed and produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and other firms are being distributed across the country.

Vaccination Roll-out – US and EU, a Comparison. The US vaccine rollout – although far from perfect – is much better than that being experienced by countries in the European Union (EU). As of March 2021 about 21% of the US population have received their first shots while only 7% of EU’s population have had their first shot. Three factors play into the EU falling behind in vaccinations – which have a lot to do with the current resurgence of coronavirus (3rd wave) in Europe. The EU had too much bureaucracy involved in making vaccination policy decisions, it was penny-wise and pound-foolish (holding out for a lower price per vaccination and losing out in the initial distribution), and the fact that Europe is the world’s epicenter of vaccine skepticism.

Vaccinations for Military Personnel. The DOD has its vaccine distribution plan and has established a priority system for who gets the vaccine. The DOD maintains a website with information about the COVID-19 vaccine. Early on some units were given a priority designation for vaccines – special operations, air crews, and others. Forward deployed units and bases overseas began receiving the vaccine in late December 2020. The vaccination of military personnel is not mandatory at the moment. Many members of the military are balking at getting poked in the arm citing concerns about the long-term effects. Military leaders have indicated that in some instances roughly a third of service members have declined the vaccines when it was offered. DOD is conducting an outreach program to dispel some of the myths association with the vaccine.

MHS GENESIS. The Defense Department has established an electronic health record system that provides a digital record of COVID-19 vaccinations administered to service members and their families. Referred to as “MassVax”, the digital archive will track and ensure that the DOD’s patient population has received COVID-19 vaccinations. MassVax will track who has received the vaccine as well as when and where it was given. The system pre-populates registration data directly from a patient’s electronic health record (EHR). This saves time with registration for shots and also will alert medical health care workers of potential risks with each patient – such as drug interactions or allergies.

Distorting Facts About Vaccines. China and Russia have been busy promoting the vaccines that they have developed and are now marketing to other countries. At the same time they are spreading disinformation around the world about the effectiveness of vaccines developed by the United States and other nations. This distortion of facts is being spread by some segments of the U.S media and is contributing to a reluctance to getting the vaccine. Read more about Chinese and Russian influence campaigns risk undermining Covid-19 vaccination programs.

Adverse Effects of Vaccines? Overall, most medical professionals are finding that there are very few links found between vaccinations and deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information on reports of adverse events after a COVID-19 vaccination on its website.

Photo: (Former) Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller receives a COVID vaccination in January 2021.

Assisting with Patient Care

DOD medical facilities are providing medical care for those infected with COVID-19. Most people receive outpatient medical care but some with severe cases require hospitalization. Some DOD medical centers are offering the infusion of investigational antibody medications that have been authorized under a Food and Drug Administration emergency use directive.

STORM CHASER. The military is taking part in or conducting a number of research projects associated with COVID-19. One of these is the STORM CHASER study by the Uniformed Services University’s Infectious Disease Clinical Research Program. This particular program seeks to find out if COVID-19 could be prevented in those who have recently been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 infection by administering an intramuscular monoclonal antibody within eight days of exposure and not yet symptomatic.

Outpatient Care. Some military hospitals have established new procedures for out patient care of COVID patients. One is the COVID-19 Remote Monitoring Program – a joint effort of the Virtual Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. If a patient qualifies for enrollment in the program they are equipped with the FDA-approved home monitoring kit that contains a tablet, a network hub, arm band monitor, blood pressure cuff, temperature patch, and spirometer.

Banner Coronavirus

Conclusion

The United States military has and continues to successfully manage its way through the coronavirus threat. The number of deaths among military members is minimal and operations and training – although drastically reduced – are being conducted to ensure the nation is ready for any contingency. The pace of operations in overseas conflict zones was reduced – with training and advisory activities seeing drastic changes in frequency and effectiveness. The level of activity overseas has now picked up and will likely be back to almost normal over the next several months. An aggressive approach to confront coronavirus by the DoD resulted in the military successfully getting through one of the worst health scares the nation has experienced in a long time.


Top Photo: May Oliva, a clinical nurse assigned to Naval Medical Center San Diego, administers a nasopharyngeal swab to test a patient for the coronavirus. Photo by Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacab Greenberg, Dec 17, 2020.

References

“Coronavirus: DOD Response”, U.S. Department of Defense.
https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/Coronavirus/


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