CAMP CARROLL, South Korea -- Soldiers assigned to U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Korea (USAMMC-K) maintain a “fight tonight” mindset.
But they never thought “the enemy” would be a virus.
In late December, well before news of a highly contagious coronavirus called COVID-19 began to receive widespread U.S. media attention, USAMMC-K leaders were already at battle -- ensuring U.S. Forces on the Korea peninsula had access to life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE).
“A switch was flipped and it was like: transition to hostilities,” USAMMC-K Deputy Commander of Operations Maj. Mark Sander said. “We’re enabling all of those things we would be doing in a wartime setting, but [it is] for a public health crisis scenario.”
Sander said USAMMC-K Commander Lt. Col. Marc Welde and the procurement team “saw the writing on the wall,” as they planned for a worst-case scenario for the region.
USAMMC-K, a direct reporting unit of U.S. Army Medical Logistics Command and the theater lead agent for medical materiel, supports roughly 66,000 people, including U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and the Eighth Army.
Sander said USAMMC-K leadership lobbied for mass procurement of needed medical supplies and PPE, including surgical masks, gloves and gowns. In the meantime, USAMMC-K was authorized to access a portion of wartime stocks to begin its response immediately.
“We knew that first positive case here in Korea would almost be too late,” Sander said, “so we started increasing stock levels right away.”
Cases of COVID-19 first started appearing in South Korea in late January. Within weeks, the virus continued its spread throughout Asia and beyond. Now a global pandemic, COVID-19 cases exceed 435,000 with over 19,500 deaths worldwide as of March 25, 2020, according to media reports.
While some countries are seeing significant increases in new cases, South Korea has received praise for its aggressive response to limit the spread of the virus through widespread testing and quarantines.
Similar protective measures were quickly implemented at USFK military installations and facilities, including screening at installation entrances and quarantining people returning from known hot spots. Sander said they developed quarantine kits that included masks, gloves and a thermometer to self-monitor a fever that often develops with the disease.
“It was really just about stopping the spread, so it meant more of the same materiel was needed in more locations,” he said.
Those additional locations included quarantine facilities set up by USFK and isolation centers activated by the 65th Medical Brigade, both needed to protect healthy individuals as active cases increased.
While waiting on orders of supplies, Sander said the center also was able to locally procure thermometers and critical COVID-19 specimen collection kit materials for testing.
“Our good job forecasting back in January paid off,” he said. “We were seeing our first big supply of masks coming in by the first week of March, so now we had materiel almost right when we needed it. The arrival of large volumes of materiel increased our stock levels and we didn’t have to go out and look locally as much, which means we aren’t competing with the Koreans for materiel.”
Defense Logistics Agency-Troop Support played an instrumental role in USAMMC-K’s response, working around the clock on behalf of the Department of Defense to access very limited commercial stocks in support of the effort, Welde said.
“On most days, we start and end our days with calls to their medical division’s senior leaders to ensure the right materiel, in the right amount, was in the pipeline to support the USFK commander’s operational requirements to combat the virus,” he said.
USAMMC-K also closely synchronized its fight by leveraging tactical assets for distribution with the 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command and 2nd Infantry Division, including CH-47 helicopters from the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade and combat vehicles assigned to the 563rd Medical Logistics Company and the 498th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.
Welde said he was proud to see his team’s quick and tireless action, in concert with partner agencies, to achieve the mission of supporting the joint force and their families.
“Our response really tested of all of our combat systems in a game where winning matters,” he said. “So far, we are winning.”
As of late March, Sander said there remains less than 40 people in quarantine, with only 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases across USFK installations. No cases have been recorded at USAMMC-K.
Sander said the pandemic has been an “emotional event for everyone,” but for the workforce and USAMMC-K’s partners to understand how critical medical logistics remains in the fight against a health crisis, “it’s really incredible.”
“Every link in the chain, all the way back to the Pentagon, saw that we had a great need and acknowledged the good work and analysis of the staff and understood how important it was to support us,” he said.
With new infections slowing in Korea, Sander said it frees up USAMMC-K’s available stocks and pending supply orders to be used elsewhere in the world where the need is greater.
“The big lesson out of this was that we know exactly how much we can store and how ready we can be without creating a single penny of waste,” he said. “… The joint staff made the decision to build to that stock level and maintain, so we’re going to be ready for a worst-case situation if something happens and there’s another big outbreak.
Added Sander: “We’re ready today.”