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News | Oct. 2, 2020

COVID-19 Task Force

By Macy Hinds

Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Pearl Harbor (NMRTC-PH) stood up an Expeditionary Testing Team (ETT) in April to conduct mass operational COVID-19 testing. Created in a moment’s notice, their mission is to help ensure operational readiness of the fleet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group originated as an immediate response to positive COVID-19 cases aboard a U.S. naval vessel. However, it wasn’t long before the demand for a mobile, qualified, and expeditious testing team expanded. NMRTC-PH pulled together a group of hospital corpsmen with experience and knowledge of the virus to stand up a quick reaction COVID-19 testing team.

The team conducts mass operational testing, also known as surveillance, to help detect the presence of a virus within a unit and prevent an outbreak.

Cmdr. Catherine Corbett, director for health services at Naval Health Clinic Hawaii explained, “Through our method of surveillance, where rapid specimen collection is required for a large amount of operational forces, our medical team can help identify a population at risk and allow us to develop and institute countermeasures to prevent or reduce the health threat to warfighters.”

Mass operational testing is especially important prior to deployment or mission-essential exercises.

“Mass testing allows each unit’s leadership the means to ensure their missions and vessels are virus-free and to protect their crew’s health and safety,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Ralph Vincent Solon, senior enlisted leader for directorate of health services at NMRTC-PH. “It also gives them a gauge and forecast of personnel resources for upcoming missions based on the unit’s health.”

The team travels from sea to shore to complete time sensitive missions.
“We conduct mass testing on a variety of entities but primarily Navy operational units,” Solon explained. “We’ve tested ships, submarines, Military Sealift Command ships, civilian corps personnel vital to ship operations, and special groups. We’ve even tested U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) personnel, which was a first for us.”

In July, the USCG Base Honolulu on Sand Island requested COVID-19 pre-deployment testing. The team delivered.

“Our experience with the team was exceptional professionalism and support providing full-service coordination and testing capability with timely and accurate results,” said Cmdr. Donald Kuhl, aviation physician assistant for USCG Base Honolulu satellite clinic. “Having the quick reaction team come to our base to complete the tests was extraordinary. This avoided transporting the crew to another site and allowed them to quickly return to their duties. Most importantly in today’s climate, it limited their exposure and contact with personnel outside the unit, helping to protect them and the community.”

The team saves units’ time, money, resources, and possible exposure to the virus. They have the flexibility to accommodate both scheduled and emergent requests.

“Our main purpose is to provide operational units an expedient and flexible testing process that can be molded and fit into each unit and their COVID-19 protocol,” explained Solon. “Each unit is different and requires different testing plans to accommodate the specific unit’s testing needs.”
Beyond the impact to the unit’s mission, is the impact felt by the NMRTC-PH hospital corpsmen who comprise the ETT. As members of the team, they receive real-world, hands-on experience and the satisfaction of fighting in the war against COVID-19.

Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Emily Adams, at NMRTC-PH, said, “It honestly means being part of something so much bigger than my daily job. It is nice to hear that commands are able to carry out their missions because of the work we put in through mass testing.”

Their hard work has not gone unnoticed. The team received special recognition from Submarine Squadron 7’s commodore and Tripler Army Medical Center’s deputy commander for their efforts. NMRTC-PH leadership also praised the ETT for consistently carrying out their mission.

“I’m extremely proud of the men and women who are part of the quick reaction team,” said Corbett. “From day one, they have stepped up to not only man and staff and perform testing, but contributed countless hours in preparing for each mission.”

“As the team’s missions and the continued persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic grow daily, their efforts and the whole NMRTC-PH team’s outstanding professionalism and care for our beneficiaries continue to show the whole island and region our commitment and important role in fighting this pandemic,” said Capt. Christopher Tepera, commanding officer of NMRTC-PH.

The team saw a need for mobile, mass, surveillance COVID-19 testing for operational warfighters and pulled together to fill that void. While the team was the first in Navy Medicine, other services have followed suit. For example, NMRTC-PH’s team helped U.S. Army units at Schoffield Barracks, Hawaii set up a similar mass testing operation in September. New testing missions continue to arise, as does the team’s ability to meet the demand.
This is only the beginning for the ETT. As long as there is a need, the team will be there. NMRTC-PH’s Expeditionary Testing Team: coming soon to a unit near you.
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