The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique challenge to First Army’s priority of maintaining the health and safety of its Soldiers, Family members, and civilians. At the forefront of the fight has been the First Army Command Surgeon cell.

Soldiers and civilians of the Surgeon Cell found themselves coordinating a response both at home and at First Army’s permanent Multi-Force Generation Installations (MFGI) that affected a mission of providing trained, ready, and healthy Reserve Component forces to fulfill Combatant Commander requirements around the world.

“Our primary focus is working with our First Army team members, enterprise partners at the MFGI locations, and deploying units to restart our global deployment missions,” said Col. Marc Hultquist, the First Army command surgeon.

Maj Logan Blank was one of the key personnel involved in the successful response. Blank, who serves as a First Army medical operations officer, developed quarantine and isolation advice for First Army families. In addition to that responsibility, Blank drafted a concept to protect Reserve Component forces during their home station muster, as well as their movement and post-mobilization training. Meanwhile, Maj. Mary Ugaddan led a team that developed a contact tracing plan for First Army’s Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment.

The initial response of Blank and the rest of the Surgeon cell included planning for an array of contingencies.

“We prepared to address the threat across the First Army formations if national actions such as travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and mandated breathing-exposure masks were not effective in reducing the viral transmission rates,” Blank said. “We curtailed non-essential travel and initiated discussions with MFGI platforms at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss regarding how Reserve Component units due to mobilize could be protected at home station, during travel, upon arrival, and during Soldier Readiness Processing, post-mobilization training, and movement to their forward-deployed location.”

At Fort Bliss, Maj. Maria Duggan, a physician assistant with the 5th Armored Brigade, noted that this planning and vision helped the unit to deal with problems directly.

“The medical team at 5th Armored Brigade established battle drills of possible situations during the isolation and quarantine of Soldiers that were continuously modified to improve the flow of the medical issues,” she said.

Duggan added that Soldiers were tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible, were separated by cohort, wore masks, and were given regular temperature checks.

All this was done while 5th Armored Brigade medics continued with their usual mission of training Soldiers to meet combatant commander requirements.

“During the demanding and overwhelming tasks, all the medics kept a positive attitude during this pandemic,” Duggan said. “I am very proud of all my medical team because they all responded well to this pandemic and implementation of additional preventive measures.”

While members of the Surgeon Cell implemented large-scale procedures to protect the force, they also adapted to the fluid situation by educating themselves and the force on the latest guidance and effective preventative measures.

“Education has also been a key defense weapon,” Hultquist said. “Simple behaviors such as washing hands and keeping a distance of six feet or greater goes a long way in protecting us and they don’t require a lot of resources.”

While information was key, Hultquist said misinformation could have just as much of an impact.

“Managing the information has been the biggest challenge,” Hultquist acknowledged. “It begins with having reliable information. Some countries are reluctant to communicate openly about their situation for a variety of reasons. Then the speed and volume of the information became challenging. It is important to communicate quickly, but the haste at which some information is distributed can negatively impact the reliability of the information. Finally, it is difficult to send the message with the right level of concern. We can run the risk of over-reacting or under-reacting and both have significant consequences to science’s credibility.”

To mitigate this, Hultquist said, his team conducted vigorous research.

“We delegated some of the topics across our team. We sought out reliable news sources, both public and professional. We reached out to our experts in the Department of Defense to cross-reference information. In addition to the SharePoint website, the number of meetings increased dramatically to ensure information was distributed reliably and timely.”

While the situation has been a tremendous challenge, it has also presented an opportunity, according to Hultquist.

“This pandemic is a great real-world exercise to help us see potential vulnerabilities when we scale up our operations. It forced us to re-focus on our stock of equipment maintained on hand,” he said. “We also have learned how to leverage new technology available to us. We have created new battle rhythms that will serve us well in the future.”