FORT DRUM, New York – Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health facilities throughout the country have rapidly changed the way they conduct business. From postponing elective procedures to relying more on virtual appointments, the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 has significantly affected healthcare professionals and patients alike.
Shortly after the U.S. recognized COVID-19 as a potential pandemic, healthcare leaders at the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity (MEDDAC) on Fort Drum in Upstate New York elected to convert one of their clinics to a COVID-positive treatment facility, a decision which has been instrumental in the fight against the virus on the installation.
Heading up the COVID-19 fight are the all-volunteer medical professionals of the Bowe Army Medical Home on Fort Drum. There, doctors, nurses and other MEDDAC healthcare professionals focus their attention full-time to the care and treatment of Soldiers, Family members and retirees who have tested positive for the virus.
“At the start, the plan was for an outpatient treatment facility where we got everything ready for a possible wave of positives on (the) post,” said Capt. (Dr.) Jordan Gass, a family medicine physician and volunteer provider at the COVID-positive treatment facility.
Fortunately, the wave of positive cases never occurred. As time went on, and mitigation measures proved successful in significantly slowing the spread of the virus, the Bowe team has been able to slowly scale back operations to account for the low number of positive cases.
“There’s always contingency plans if things start to happen,” Gass explained if a significant increase in cases occurs. “Revving up our capabilities in this clinic and bringing in division help if needed, that’s all in the background if we start to see an uptick here on post.”
However, one thing that has not changed is the individual care each patient receives when they are undergoing treatment for COVID-19. As soon as the laboratory notifies the clinic of a positive test, the team makes immediate contact with the patient to begin treatment and tracking.
“We have case managers here who are assigned to every positive patient that comes up,” Gass said. “So, if you’re COVID positive, you’ll have your own case manager with a phone number that you can call any time of the day and relay your symptoms and what’s going on. That case manager will be with you throughout the whole process.”
The nurse case managers will coordinate the various elements that are involved in the care of each individual patient. From scheduling appointments to coordinating care between the Fort Drum healthcare team and community healthcare partners, the nurse case managers are there to ensure their patients receive the comprehensive care they need to recover.
Additionally, the Fort Drum Preventive Medicine team will also reach out to the patient to conduct contact tracing to determine who else may have been exposed.
Upon making contact with the patient, “they’ll walk through who that person is regularly around and who may have been exposed to that person,” Gass explained. “They’ll generate a list based on people who’ve had first-hand exposure to the positive patient and they’ll call all those people to have them come to us to be tested.”
Even with the lower than expected number of positive patients on the installation, keeping a centralized location to treat COVID patients is still essential in minimizing the potential spread of the virus.
Jennifer Pledger, a nurse at the clinic and Sackets Harbor, New York native, explained it’s to stop cross-contamination. “That way, you don’t have healthy patients (coming into contact) with positive patients. That way, we limit the risk of exposure.”
Pledger, along with all other medical professionals working in the COVID-positive treatment side of the Bowe clinic, volunteered to do so knowing the risks it would entail.
“There is a pandemic, and we wanted to do what we do best and make a difference, to step in and use or specialties to help,” said Nikki Loehr, a nurse at the clinic and Chicago native. “This is what nursing is all about.”
“I think that was the reason for all of us, we just wanted to help,” said Mary Paul, a volunteer nurse and Chicago native. “We didn’t realize how to anticipate how busy it was going to be, but everybody here volunteered with the intention of helping. They asked people to step up, and that’s what we did.”
On top of treating patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, the medical staff at Bowe also work to manage the expectations of their patients.
“Some are very scared, so it’s nice to ease their anxieties,” Loehr said. “When they come through, some are very scared to get tested. They’ve heard these horror stories about being tested. It’s rumor control, making them feel more comfortable about what’s going on.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the Bowe team has added to and adjusted services as the situation surrounding COVID-19 evolved. For example, the COVID-positive treatment team is now conducting 100 percent drive-up COVID-19 testing for deploying Soldiers as well as testing for other Soldiers who meet specific screening criteria.
“It’s all about readiness, which is a huge part of what medical care is in the Army,” said Gass, a Bowling Green, Kentucky native. “Soldiers will do their 14-day quarantine and get tested prior to leaving, so when they hit the ground, they’re ready. They don’t have this period where they’re quarantined in country. They can hit the ground and be ready to work.”
The Bowe clinic team attributes much of its success to the exceptional support they’ve received from other Fort Drum organizations. Soldiers from the 10th Sustainment Brigade, 10th Mountain Division constructed temporary shower and laundry facilities to ensure healthcare workers go home safe, and the clinic routinely receives medical supplies from the 10th Mtn. Div.’s Company C, 210th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, also known as “Charlie Med.”
The clinic also shares a mutually beneficial relationship with their North Country healthcare partners in the communities surrounding Fort Drum.
“It’s always key to have that good relationship between us and them,” Gass said of his clinic’s relationship with community healthcare organizations. “They know what we’re trying to achieve with our Soldier readiness and are able to communicate back and forth with us about anyone we send there. (That allows us to) bring them back into our fold and continue to take care of them.”
Moving forward, the Bowe team wants everyone to do their part to help stop the spread of COVID-19. While life may not return to the way it was before the virus, everyone doing their part will allow the community to transition into its new normal.