JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –It took nearly 8,000 COVID antigen tests, at least that many screenings and 14 days of restriction of movement (ROM), but in-person learning at the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence (MEDCoE) safely resumed after post-holiday block leave (HBL) reintegration this week.
Dr. Nadia Pearson, the MEDCoE Command Surgeon and Chief of the MEDCoE Force Health Protection Cell responsible for the MEDCoE HBL reintegration plan, said she credits Soldier and leader professionalism and discipline for successful execution of HBL and subsequent reintegration of over 3,000 trainees who traveled all over the continental United States for HBL.
“Our plan relied on a robust Force Health Protection education plan for trainees and their families on ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID,” said Pearson. “However, knowing what to do to prevent COVID and doing the right thing when no one is looking are two different things.”
Before HBL, MEDCoE instructors and leaders worked hard to advise Soldiers on the impacts of travel and helped them review mitigation measures that the Soldiers would need to continue while on leave, locally or otherwise. The Soldiers also departed with many hard copy and digital resources with important information like safer ways to celebrate the holidays, how to lower their COVID risk, signs and symptoms for self-monitoring and how to report any changes in their COVID status.
During travel to and from HBL, Soldiers were responsible for wearing facemasks and adhering to COVID-19 protocols to protect themselves and their loved ones. Soldiers were also required to check in with their chain of command over the break and report any COVID symptoms or risk factors immediately.
Prior to returning, trainees were advised to self-screen and quarantine in place in the event of symptoms or close contact with known COVID positive personnel. Upon arrival back to JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, students were immediately screened for signs and symptoms that may have developed during travel. If they had an elevated temperature or any COVID symptoms, they were seen by one of MEDCoE’s on-site, healthcare providers. When necessary, the healthcare provider sent Soldiers to be tested for COVID-19 by the HBL testing team at a separate location.
“Based on the relatively small number of post-HBL COVID cases, or suspected COVID cases, we have seen,” remarked Pearson, “our Soldiers did the right thing while on leave.” She said she was pleased that the vast majority of trainees returned to base well-rested, healthy and COVID-free. “With that as the measure, Holiday Block Leave was extremely successful.”
Once all of the initial post-HBL screening and testing was complete, students entered a mandatory 14-day restriction of movement (ROM) during which they completed virtual training. Pearson explained that coordination between course managers, instructors and Force Health Protection was a critical aspect of the HBL reintegration plan.
“Our courses and cadre have done a great job in facilitation of continued learning through virtual capabilities so that Soldiers do not miss instruction during ROM, and we can re-establish the relative safety of the training bubble,” explained Pearson.
After the ROM period, the Force Health Protection Cell conducted antigen tests on each trainee at least twice in the COVID-19 Surveillance Center (CSC), the new Point of Care Lab. “The antigen test is a great tool that gives our team and instructors confidence that the students don’t have asymptomatic infections and can return to in-person training,” said Pearson.
Pearson plans to keep the CSC open as a means of surveillance of trainees, instructors and staff for COVID-19 as long as there is a need as determined by elevated COVID cases in the surrounding community. Asymptomatic MEDCoE Soldiers and DoD civilians eligible for care at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) are eligible to get the antigen test at the CSC. She says, however, MEDCoE antigen tests are not currently used for symptomatic personnel.
“At this time, anyone who has symptoms should seek care and a test at their primary care, local drive-through testing site, or BAMC’s Wilford Hall Emergency Rooms,” said Pearson.
Pearson wants to clarify that the antigen test is not the same as the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. PCR tests detect the presence of the virus's genetic material with results usually within 24-48 hours. Antigen tests detect specific proteins on the surface of the coronavirus. Antigen test results are quicker than PCR and may be provided in as soon as 15 minutes. While positive tests are said to be highly accurate, antigen tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests and have had some instances of false negative tests.
“Reminder: the antigen test is not the PCR test,” explained Pearson. The COVID Antigen Test is being used by the MEDCoE as a surveillance and screening tool to detect those with no symptoms or close contacts of known positive people in order to stop the spread early. “The Antigen test indicates someone who may have an acute infection and may be spreading the illness unknowingly.”
The Force Health Protection Cell plans to publicize walk-in hours of operation for the COVID-19 Surveillance Center by early February.