KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- During public health emergencies, the military medical community has a secret weapon to lead the charge against a disease outbreak – the Public Health Emergency Officer.
More than twenty Public Health Emergency Officers, or PHEOs, across Europe have been activated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and serve as the link between the medical community and Army garrisons.
PHEOs provide medical expertise and guidance to garrison leadership, who implement these recommendations tailored to each location’s needs in order to help sustain mission-critical operations and essential services, according to Lt. Col. Renee Howell, the Army Public Health Nursing Regional Consultant for Public Health Command Europe.
“The role of a Public Health Emergency Officer has now become more prominent than ever,” Howell said. “The PHEO responsibility is assigned to medical professionals within the hospital or clinic as an additional duty. They are required to train frequently for worst-case scenarios through exercises that ensure their knowledge, skills, and expertise is readily available when needed.”
Public Health Command Europe’s Preventive Medicine Services Division provides oversight of the PHEO program, and ensures each PHEO is equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to help lead the fight against public health emergencies.
“Public Health Command Europe synchronizes guidance from U.S. Army Europe and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said Howell. “And we are also the subject matter experts for any questions coming from our PHEOs, so we can ensure leadership has the ability to translate their recommendations into a tangible reality.”
Due to the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, PHEOs have had to put their skills and training to the test.
Dr. Robert Weien, who has been a PHEO since 2017, is normally the Chief of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s Occupational Medicine Department.
In his current role as the PHEO at U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz, he communicates with PHCE, the U.S. Air Force PHEO and Public Health personnel at Ramstein Air Base, as well as the German Public Health authorities (Gesundheitsamt) in the local state of Rheinland-Pfalz to ensure that the approach to the COVID-19 crisis remains coordinated.
Army units are well prepared to respond in civil emergencies, according to Weien.
There are robust mechanisms in place to assess capabilities and put together rapid and effective means to provide assistance to those in need, whether it is to a forest fire, hurricane, or other major incident.
Weien says that while a pandemic response is similar, there are unique differences. The tools and training needed to fight the disease, such as contact tracing and widespread surveillance testing, are not as familiar to the typical military operations planner.
“The PHEO role is designed to fill that niche, and provide that expertise when and where it is needed,” explained Weien. “I am the subject matter expert on the garrison commander’s staff regarding medical issues, and public health issues in particular. Much of the job involves educating staff and leaders about various aspects of public health and preventive medicine.”
Having a PHEO on the leadership team is a valuable asset for the Garrison commander.
“Our Public Health Team has been absolutely superb,” said Col. Jason Edwards, U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz Commander. “Having a dedicated PHEO working directly with our staff and integrated into our Emergency Operations Center has been invaluable to our response action. The joint integration of the host nation and U.S. Air Force has been seamless.”
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