The US military is using 'isolation in motion' to protect crews on its biggest planes from the coronavirus
A 60-day stop-movement order from the Pentagon in late March, meant to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, threw the lives of many US military personnel into uncertainty, keeping them from leaving for or returning from deployment or from traveling to new duty stations.
But the military remains a vital to the US government's response to the pandemic, of which its mobility element, the air component in particular, has been a major part.
"There are critical missions that cannot stop," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the service's top uniformed officer, said last week. "I don't believe that we're going to get any relief, nor should we expect any relief, on the global mobility [mission]."
Transportation Command, which manages that mobility mission, has seen "a reduction in movements" because of that order, Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of Transcom, told reporters on March 31. "But we are also seeing a necessity to continue to operate for mission-essential tasks and operations."
Transcom is focused on protecting the force against the outbreak, maintaining mission readiness, and remaining ready to support the FEMA and other interagency efforts to counter the outbreak, Lyons said.
Operations by Air Mobility Command, Transcom's air component, are "consistent" with the those priorities, Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, AMC's deputy commander, told reporters on April 3.
Below, you can see what Transcom and AMC are doing to safeguard their aircrews as they carry out that response.
The Air Force has given local commanders authority to act to stay ahead of the threat and is encouraging airmen to follow CDC guidelines, Thomas said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jon T. Thomas, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, briefs the media via telephone at the Pentagon, April 3, 2020.
"We've implemented staggered shifts, exercised telework options, and employed Health Protection Condition Charlie measures at all our installations to promote physical distancing" to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, Thomas said.
To maintain operational capability, Thomas said, "we're doing things like medical screening, temperature checks, and other measures for aircrew and passengers transiting areas of COVID-19 risk."
87th Medical Group members screen patients outside as a preventative measure to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, March 30, 2020.
"As necessary, for certain locations, we're also taking measures to ensure that AMC forces that are moving globally from one location to another do not pose undue risk for the host units as we transit those locations," Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon.
"Obviously when you're in the cockpit, there's no way to get 6 foot apart," Lyons said when asked about social distancing in aircraft. "The way that we're managing our flight crews is unique in many ways, and we're trying to create an isolated system of systems, if you would, even in motion."
1st Lt. Bryan Burns and 1st Lt. James Conlan shut down their C-17 at the Memphis Air National Guard Base after delivering COVID-19 test kits from Aviano, Italy, April 2, 2020.
"Where we billet them is controlled. Where they eat from, their food is delivered. So we're trying to create a very concerted cocoon, if you would, over our entire flight crew apparatus," Lyons told reporters at the Pentagon.
"And knock on wood, that seems to be working to date. It allows us to continue mission and protect the force at the same time," Lyons said. But "you can't telework and fly a plane," he added, "so there are exceptions that we're working through."
Lyons said Transcom was working to keep aircrews "very, very isolated" to avoid picking up the disease. "You might characterize it as isolation in motion."
437th Maintenance Group instructors teach squadron flying crew chiefs how to disinfect the interior of a C-17 at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, April 2, 2020.
Those crews go "straight from the aircraft into billets" upon arriving in another country, Lyons said. "They don't go out for food. They don't leave the billet until their next mission, and it's a very, very controlled environment.
"That's how we mitigate moving from a country that might be a level-three country," a designation that covers much of Europe, Lyons added. "They never actually leave that base. And even inside that base, they're very, very controlled."
AMC missions are affected by local conditions, and "commanders are taking the actions that they need to protect the parts of their force that are most critical to sustaining the readiness and the missions that we've got to perform," Thomas said, actions including "limiting the movement of certain elements of the force."
Dane Coward, left, 436th Aerial Port Squadron ramp supervisor, marshals a Humvee off a C-5M Super Galaxy, at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, March 26, 2020.
Transcom and AMC continue to support the coronavirus response by moving supplies and equipment across the country and around the world.
US Air Force aircrew unload COVID-19 testing swabs at the Memphis Air National Guard Base, March 19, 2020.
Air Mobility Command C-130s have moved equipment and personnel to help set up Army field hospitals in New York and Washington state, Thomas said.
"We've got Air Mobility liaison officers that are helping to coordinate those movements as well as commercial air movements totaling nine missions, transporting 7.8 tons of cargo and hundreds of personnel to those locations," Thomas added.
Since mid-March, Air Force C-17s have also delivered 3.5 million swabs for coronavirus test kits from Italy to Memphis, Tennessee, for distribution in the US.
The seventh shipment arrived on April 2, when a C-17 landed in Memphis with about 972,000 swabs, Thomas said on April 3, adding that the eighth mission was to arrive that day and the ninth was scheduled to arrive this week.
Transcom and AMC have also moved COVID-19 patients, which poses a different set of challenges.
A 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief prepares to simulate disinfecting a C-17 at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, April 2, 2020.
"We did move a COVID-positive patient this past weekend AFRICOM, specifically from Djibouti, up to Landstuhl in Germany to get the level of support that particular patient needed," Lyons said March 31.
"We are also working, candidly, to increase our capacity to be able to meet these kind of requirements because we know they're increasing."
"Our approach to patient movement for COVID, particularly for highly contagious patients, is to move them in an isolation system," either via air ambulance or with the Transportation Isolation System developed during the Ebola crisis, Lyons said.
A US Air Force C-17 is prepped to transport a Transportation Isolation System during a training exercise, March 6, 2019.
"We're working with scientists around the Air Force and Defense Threat Reduction and NASA and some others to really study the aircraft circulation flow and implications of the movement of those particulates and potential impacts on crews, so that we can indeed move COVID-positive patients and passengers without an isolation unit adequately protecting the crew," Lyons added.
"Aeromedical evacuation is one of AMC's core missions" and one it's done frequently over the past 20 years, Thomas said, noting that bio-containment units like the TIS were "the best means" to move COVID-19 patients.
A simulated Ebola patient in an isolation pod is put in an ambulance at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland during an Air Mobility Command exercise, August 16, 2016.
The TIS allows in-flight treatment of infected patients without exposing the aircraft's crew. Thomas said Friday that his command hadn't gotten specific requests to move a patient in that system and that AMC had "not conducted any evacuations of a COVID-19-infected patient to date."
Flight nurses and critical-care air-transport team members prepare a Transport Isolation System for simulated Ebola patients during an exercise at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, October 23, 2019.
"But the combination of transporting large volumes of patients with a highly infectious disease — the transmission of which we still don't completely understand — on a pressurized aircraft within which the air constantly circulates, and potentially making these movements from remote and austere locations over intercontinental distance, all while protecting the flight and medical crew from infection so that they remain available for future missions is a challenging task even for the Air Mobility Command," Thomas said.
AMC has interim COVID patient movement capability on alert in several places around the planet, Thomas said, adding that "in the event increased volume of patient flow is required, AMC will be prepared to increase throughput using other means."
An airman picks up lunch at the Patterson Dining Facility at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, March 30, 2020. The tables in front of the counter are meant to help enforce social distancing and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Asked about coronavirus outbreaks within AMC, Thomas avoided specifics, saying there had been "manifestations of COVID-19 on our military installations" but no manifestation "on our installations that would suggest that we'll have any difficulty executing our missions at this point."
"The extent of it, I don't think I want to get into a significant amount of detail on," Thomas said. "It is something that we have to be cognizant [of] and constantly watching."
Lyons also declined to discuss specifics when asked how many Transcom personnel had tested positive for COVID-19. But he said his command's positive rates were "very, very low — single digits across the entire mobility enterprise."
A C-17 on the flight line during an Air Mobility Command exercise at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, August 16, 2016.
"That will change over time. I acknowledge that," Lyons added. "Every day we're making a concerted effort to understand how do we protect the force and maintain a level of resiliency to operate this global mobility enterprise for the department."
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