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Transcom Looks for Ways to Safely Move COVID-19 Patients

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 31, 2020) -- Last week, U.S. Transportation Command was responsible for moving a patient with COVID-19 from Djibouti, Africa, to Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment. Moving a contagious patient isn't easy, Transcom's commander said, but efforts are underway to make it safer.

"The movement of a highly contagious patient is a much different challenge," Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons told reporters via teleconference today. "We are also working ... to increase our capacity to be able to meet these kind of requirements, because we know they're increasing."

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Patients with COVID-19 can be moved in an air ambulance or with a transportation isolation system, which was designed in response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, but those systems have limited capacity, he said.

So, additional work is being done in partnership with the Air Force, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, NASA and other agencies to find additional ways for air crews to safely move COVID-19 patients.

"We're working with scientists ... to really study the aircraft circulation flow and the 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 while adequately protecting the crew," Lyons said. "We think we're making some progress."

Transcom also has adapted operations in other ways in the face of COVID-19, Lyons said. For instance, it's not possible for air crews to telework, nor is it possible for those same crews to practice social distancing while on board. Nevertheless, precautions are being taken to ensure continued health and safety of crews -- something Lyons called "isolation in motion."

"When you're in the cockpit, there's no way to get 6 feet apart," Lyons said. "The way that we're managing our flight crews is unique in many ways, ... 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. And ... that seems to be working to date. It allows us to continue [the] mission and protect the force at the same time."

Air crews arrive at a destination and move directly to their temporary housing, and then they don't leave until it's time to depart on the next mission, Lyons said. They don't go out to eat, he said, and they don't leave the installation.

"Even inside that base, they're very, very controlled," he said. "That's the way we're managing that."

While Transcom is still running its standard mission set, those missions have been augmented by new takings related to coronavirus.

"We are supporting the State Department and their Task Force Repatriation effort," he said. "We have moved things in support of Health and Human Services, for example, [coronavirus] test swabs across the globe. We've helped to move field hospitals that you see being built in places like New York and in the state of Washington where we're pleased to help. We're proud of all that we do every day."

Lyons said there is some concern about maintaining the mostly civilian-operated transportation capacity, which Transcom contracts with, to perform much of the transportation it facilitates for the Defense Department.

Civilian airlines are struggling with the drop in commercial air travel that has come as a result of the pandemic, Lyons noted. "So, any opportunity we have to push workload in their direction, we're doing that," he said. "We're doing that largely with repatriation efforts and other efforts of that sort."

Additionally, Lyons said, as a result of reductions in movement for military personnel, many of the permanent changes of station that would happen in the summer might not happen.

"I am very concerned, especially for our small-business partners that make up so much of the ... household goods moving industry," he said. "You know, we're very active in our communication both with the industry sector and the services who are managing the exception to policy on the moves to make sure we're at least seeing things the same way in terms of managing expectations and workload."

Despite challenges with the coronavirus, Lyons said, Transcom is still ready to move whatever the DOD needs moved.

"We're still operating the global mobility enterprise," he said. "We still must do that to maintain our level of readiness for the secretary, and, so, I believe we are doing that. I believe we are ready. I've reported to the secretary that we are ready to meet our mission requirements as they come."

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