WASHINGTON – At a time when many Soldiers and their families are staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19, Army leaders are quickly expanding how they provide virtual health care and communication.A silver lining from the pandemic could be found in expanded virtual health care, officials said, as virtual options could become the new normal for Soldiers and their families in a post-COVID-19 world.It’s not uncommon for Soldiers and their families to have a tough time accessing healthcare – whether that is behavioral health care, primary care, or other types within the network, said Col. Dennis Sarmiento, chief of the Army Surgeon General Behavioral Health Division.This, coupled with social distancing guidelines, has compelled Army leaders to quickly enhance new ways to leverage virtual health, he explained.Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Army had already utilized virtual care to augment in-person capabilities at operational and deployed settings.“We’re finding that we can apply the lessons from those operational settings to what we’re doing day in and day out,” he said. “There is an absolute benefit in looking at how we structure and resource virtual healthcare.”This comes as the health threat level at many Army bases across the globe are at HPCON Charlie. This means only essential personnel have access, and health appointments are being conducted through digital alternatives.“This is part of reform and reorganization to achieve the best care and still do it in a way that supports readiness, retains or preserves high quality, preserves the safety and potentially achieves efficiencies, but that's not the focus right now,” Sarmiento said. “The focus is really on meeting our patients where they're at, and meeting their needs.”Moving forward, this could be an opportunity where providers can meet any patient virtually, especially from any location, he said. “This is compelling us to look at the business rules, and see how we deliver care in a way that meets our patients where they're at beyond isolation or beyond quarantine.”However, those “business rules” extend beyond behavioral health. Spiritual fitness, along with support and resiliency programs are working collaboratively to bolster trust, compassion, stability, and hope to Soldiers and their families through virtual means.“Our teams are working together – as we work in garrison or combat situations – and it seems we’re in a different kind of fight as we’re deployed at home during this unique and challenging time,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Solhjem, the Army’s chief of chaplains.Chaplains have figured out multiple creative ways to stay connected virtually, while accommodating physical and social distancing, he added.The Army’s virtual efforts have been leveraged to help Army families engage, connect, and reach out, especially who live off post, said Col. Steve Lewis, deputy director of the Army Quality of Life Task Force, as more people engage in virtual town halls, hosted by local leadership.“Garrison and installation commanders are dedicated to ensuring that resources and services are available for Soldiers and their families,” Lewis said, “What we're seeing is through virtual means. Those families that are living off base are becoming connected back to the base and the resources available because of the desire for connection.”It’s important for Army families to connect with information available from leaders and Army service organizations, he said, whether that’s through the chaplaincy or Army Community Services.Every unit in the Army, from the lowest level to senior-most levels, is delivering virtually what they would normally do in person, Solhjem said. He added chaplains normally help people in person. However, these days they conduct their mission virtually.“On the positive side of this, the virtual world that's been created is helping people to stay connected to those resources and people,” Solhjem said. “Those are also avenues where the family readiness groups are leveraged towards caring for Soldiers and families are seeing services reached out to and utilized.”If someone talks to a chaplain, they should recognize it’s a confidential conversation. However, chaplains also need to help Soldiers leverage the other support agencies, he said. “Whether it is behavioral health or other agencies getting the virtual connections, I think it is the next big building block here to help our Soldiers and families.”“It’s an important partnership we have here,” Solhjem said. “There’s a sacred trust that is established with us who provide care, the caregivers, to the Soldiers and their families and civilians and the retirees and veterans in our care.”That partnership isn’t just the key to help others during the COVID pandemic – but all year round, said Jim Helis, Army Resiliency Directorate director.“We want families to be optimistic and hopeful, we are a resilient institution,” Helis said. “We're made up of resilient people. We will come out of this on the far end. We're learning a lot about relationships and taking care of each other that's going to make us a stronger institution.”Related linksArmy News ServiceARNEWS ArchiveArmy.mil: Quality of Life Task ForceArmy.mil: U.S. Army Chaplain CorpsArmy.mil: Ready and Resilient