WASHINGTON — Driven by a three-phase emergency response plan, the Army has contributed in every facet of the ongoing battle against COVID-19, the service’s top medical officer said Wednesday.
The strategic approach centers on prevention, detection and treatment, said Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle as part of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Noon Report series.
U.S. Army Medical Command and the Army Public Health Center have been using the concept to guide the service’s efforts, which have involved the deployment of thousands of Soldiers across the country including Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces to the East Coast to help overtasked health care workers treat COVID-19 patients.
In the Defense Department’s latest response, more than 700 medical and support troops were ordered to deploy earlier this month to augment COVID-19 efforts in Texas and California. The force includes six 85-member UAMTFs assigned to different parts of Texas.
Army researchers have also helped develop and test vaccines for the virus and the National Guard has established medical field stations, he said.
“It has been an Army response, not a medical response,” Dingle said. “It’s not just the medical guys … it has been an Army operation led by the [Army] Chief of Staff [Gen. James C. McConville] and the entire Army Staff and that is what has resulted in such a remarkable response.”
Striking a balance
Knowledge has been the driving force behind preventing the virus, he said. The Army has implemented programs to educate Soldiers on how to protect against the virus, and Soldiers have trained on how to protect quarantine bubbles of the population from infection, while also keeping within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Dingle said.
“We have been setting up not to conserve the fighting strength [of the force], in this case, but to conserve the strength of the American citizens,” Dingle said.
If prevention measures cannot stop infections, the Army plan moves to the detection phase and testing stations are established at an installation. Following an outbreak or confirmation of infection, medical personnel screen each person entering a post. In April, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for instance, increased its capacity for testing to about 700 people a day following a small outbreak of cases there.
In the final phase, the Army has had a significant role in helping treat patients diagnosed with coronavirus.
“There’s a saying that you run to the sound of the guns,” Dingle said. “One thing that has been admirable with Army medicine is that you had the health care worker communities, our in-tow deployable hospital centers and our field hospitals and our health care teams that have just run to the sound of this virus.”
Despite taking a hit within its ranks when Soldiers deployed, Dingle credited MEDCOM commanders with managing resources and assuring each installation had enough medical personnel available to help control the pandemic at Army installations. Like its civilian counterparts, MEDCOM also curtailed non-emergency, routine medical and dental procedures to help overburdened medical staff who were tasked with testing and prevention.
“The thing that we had to balance was we still [had] to provide the care to the beneficiary population at your post, your camp, or your station,” Dingle said. “The regional commanding generals, because they have command and control over the Soldiers and the uniformed personnel within [MEDCOM], have done an exceptional job cross-leveling to ensure that the things still function in spite of losing [staff] in support of a deployment.”
Controlling the spike
Dingle said the Army has experienced a slight rise in coronavirus cases likely because of contact with the civilian population after states reopened and from resuming some operations. The surgeon general said the amount of infections remains relatively low and he credits the discipline of Army units in following physical distancing and sanitary guidelines.
“We also are experiencing a small spike, because we also have restarted the movement of our forces across the globe,” Dingle said. “So there has been an impact.”
Dingle said commanders have adhered to force protection guidelines due to the fact Soldiers must be ready to deploy regardless of circumstances related to the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, at least 170 retired Soldiers also returned to duty to help support COVID-19 missions after the Army received over 25,000 responses. Dingle lauded the efforts of those Soldiers, who embedded into medical treatment facilities nationwide.
While visiting Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio Tuesday, Dingle met a former Soldier who returned to service after working as a civilian microbiologist.
“She had in her heart, the desire to serve [again],” Dingle said. “That is the type of commitment that these retirees have brought to Army medicine.”
Virtual behavioral health options also increased allowing Soldiers to seek help even while on stay-at-home orders. Soldiers have been encouraged to use virtual health care because of its privacy and discretion, Dingle said, adding he believes those options will normalize how people seek behavioral health care in the future.
“[Virtual behavioral health] is skyrocketing and we’ll continue to leverage this capability,” Dingle said. “And, of course, integrate and bring in the latest civilian technologies in order to also take care of our beneficiary population.”