Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD -- When the U.S. Army needed to test more than 3,000 Soldiers for COVID-19 prior to a training rotation at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California, a team of biological and logistics experts based at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) provided a deployable solution.

The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) was tasked with the mission of testing the entire 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (1/34th ABCT), Minnesota National Guard, at their embarkation site at Camp Ripley Training Center in Minnesota. To rapidly field a solution, the JPEO-CBRND turned to the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center for assistance.

The challenge faced by the team was to provide rapid testing onsite so the unit could successfully deploy to perform their mission at NTC. “Camp Ripley’s medical clinic just did not have the capacity to manage such a high volume of testing,” said Eric Miller, a CCDC Chemical Biological Center employee on loan to JPEO-CBRND.

The Center was responsible for shipping two JPEO-CBRND mobile laboratories to Camp Ripley, setting them up and overseeing the screening of more than 3,000 members of the brigade in a month’s time. Miller reached out to Chika Nzelibe, chief of the Center’s Advanced Design and Manufacturing Division’s Product Realization Branch, to assist with getting the two mobile laboratories outfitted with the analytical equipment needed for screening on this scale. Nzelibe pulled together a team of Center specialists who could get every phase of the mission done.

Writing the Playbook

“Nothing like this had ever been tried before so we had to create a conduct of operations plan from scratch,” said Miller. Operations consisted of screening every Soldier for COVID-19 using a laboratory testing procedure that provides results in less than an hour. Those testing positive could be placed in quarantine for 14 days and retested; the rest could be cleared for transit to Fort Irwin.

However, the first step was to simply get the mobile laboratories from the Center’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., warehouse to Camp Ripley, 1,230 miles away.

“Before the laboratories could be mounted onto tractor trailers and driven away, everything in the laboratories had to be strapped down and fully secured,” said Miriam Meller, a Center biomedical engineer on the team. “It started with the Center’s set-up and tear-down team being trained on the equipment in the labs, which was complicated by the fact that we had to maintain social distancing in a very confined space. That meant training only two people at a time.”

There was a lot to secure in these laboratories: the analytical equipment, chairs, tables, shelving, toolboxes, and more. “It seemed like there was no end to what might move around inside these laboratories during transit, so we ratchet-strapped down everything that could move, always thinking, ‘What might have I missed?’” said Meller. “So we strapped and strapped, and tightened and tightened, usually bending around in very awkward positions to do it.”

The trailers were driven by members of the Center’s Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction (CBARR) business unit without incident. Once they arrived, Meller and her teammate, Troy Thompson, a Center chemist, had to unstrap and put back in place everything they had strapped in Maryland. They also had to attach water and sewer systems, electricity, and HVAC. “Attaching all those utility systems involved many hours of climbing up and down the outside of the laboratories in very hot and humid weather,” said Thompson.

A Thousand Tests per Day

Once the laboratories were fully set up and ready to start operating, Tim Karpich, a Center logistics management specialist, and Marcus Thermos, a Center biologist, began their job managing the day-to-day operations of the laboratories. That included making sure that all standard operating procedures were followed by the laboratory technicians, that the work flowed smoothly, and that they were well stocked with all the necessary supplies. Finally, it meant answering all manner of questions about the equipment, and making sure the work was performed correctly and efficiently.

Operations started on June 27 with 117 Soldiers tested. There was a pause and then they ramped up to test 3,000 over the course of July 3, 5, 6, and 7 – a thousand a day. Those who tested positive were tested again 14 days later, so testing ended on July 28.

“We operated with no specific requirements, just a mission goal, so everyone had to be flexible,” Miller said. “There were changes by the hour, and for a long time we didn’t even know where the laboratories were going to be set up and what travel restrictions we would have to follow. The team really stepped up, they regularly worked overtime, and they accommodated every change and uncertainty thrown at them.”