USAISR on the frontlines of fight against COVID-19
Capt. Farley Raquel and Sgt. Rebecca Hummer do a system check on ventilators in the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research “Victory” Intensive Care Unit. (Photo Credit: Col. (Dr.) Erik Weitzel) VIEW ORIGINAL

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19 pandemic has impacted lives in more than 185 countries throughout the world, changing how people work, shop, play and interact with each other every day. With all the ongoing changes, the staff at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, has also made modifications in how it conducts day-to-day business while maintaining its overall research mission of “optimizing combat casualty care” and, further, providing the best quality care to patients at the only U.S. Department of Defense Burn Center.

One of these changes includes the decision to suspend current and planned research in order to comply with Force Health Protection social distancing requirements, as well as an imperative to conserve personal protective equipment for clinical use. To contribute directly to the fight against COVID-19, the USAISR converted research space into an intensive care unit (ICU), thus providing potential surge capacity to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) for treating patients infected with COVID-19.

“The research facilities were built with a mass casualty conversion capability,” said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Erik Weitzel, USAISR Deputy Commander. “In times of need, a majority of the two research building basements can be converted to support Brooke Army Medical Center overflow.”

The USAISR and BAMC are collocated, allowing the joint facility to care for infected patients in San Antonio and the surrounding area. The additional ICU overflow at the USAISR, dubbed the “Victory” ICU, will be staffed by a combination of USAISR and BAMC personnel and will be used if  the only Level I trauma center within the DOD receives a massive influx of COVID-19 patients.

“The Research Directorate is supporting the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic on two fronts,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Thomas Edwards, USAISR Deputy Director of Research. “The first front is supporting BAMC with an additional 80 to 130 additional beds to treat severe virus infections. The second is to incorporate novel research projects designed to help patients fighting COVID-19 infections.”

Col. (Dr.) Andrew Cap, USAISR Director of Research, partnered with colleagues at the USAISR headquarters, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and the Armed Services Blood Program, to build a DOD-wide investigational treatment program using blood plasma from patients recovering from COVID-19. This blood product, called convalescent plasma, contains antibodies to the coronavirus which may help patients transfused with it to more rapidly clear their infections.

“One might think that treating COVID-19 is not relevant to the mission of the combat casualty care research,” added Weitzel. “These creative researchers have found numerous ways they can contribute. Research studies on blood products used to treat combat wounded have suggested a way in which those who have already recovered from the infections are able to provide the fastest and perhaps most effective way to treat this deadly virus. The USAISR researchers are leading the way with this ‘convalescent plasma’ concept.”

Sgt. First Class Anniel Samujh, Research Directorate Non-commissioned-officer-in-charge believes COVID-19 has not negatively affected the research mission. In fact, he believes the virus has made research stronger with respect to the fight against COVID-19 while still supporting combat casualty care.

“What we are currently doing has never been done here before,” said Samujh. “We continue to push the limits as one cohesive team to answer our Nation’s call.”

At the USAISR Burn Center, the staff continues to care for burn and trauma patients. According to Burn Center Director, Dr. Leopoldo “Lee” Cancio, the facility is poised to admit trauma patients who would otherwise be treated at BAMC so their staff can concentrate on treating COVID-19 infected patients. This provision should keep the virus from spreading to burn and trauma patients.

“The Burn Center has been designated as a ‘clean unit,’” said Col. Jodelle “Jodi” Schroeder, Deputy Commander for Nursing. “That means we are taking every precaution to protect our vulnerable burn patient population from being collocated with COVID-19 patients.”

Throughout the entire Institute, non-essential personnel are also doing their part by working from home and following recommended guidelines to minimize the spread of the virus.

“We have also taken an aggressive stance on tracking and having staff self-quarantine, until they are ruled out [of being COVID-19 positive] to ensure we do not spread the disease to our staff and patients,” said Sgt. First Class Jensen Gomez, Burn Center Non-commissioned-officer-in-charge.

Overall, Buller said he was extremely proud of every member of the USAISR Team. “Everyone is doing an extremely noble job,” he said. “From everyone at the Burn Center to each member of the research and supporting staff at the research facilities, they are all putting a tremendous effort to support our determination to beat this deadly virus.”