JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, (Feb. 26, 2021) – Service members with COVID-19 may be in quarantine, but they are far from being alone.
A new virtual health program is leveraging technology to provide round-the-clock care for military trainees who tested positive or who are deemed at risk due to exposure or symptoms.
“This has been a tremendous collaborative effort between Brooke Army Medical Center, the Virtual Medical Center and the Army Medical Center of Excellence to provide medical support to Soldiers, Airmen and Sailors,” said Army Maj. Daniel Yourk, deputy director of operations, Virtual Medical Center.
The program, which monitors service members via smart phone, was first initiated to provide support to military trainees after holiday leave. Upon their return, students were screened for COVID-19 and, if they tested positive or were deemed at high risk, quarantined at a designated barracks at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland for 10 or more days.
“This was the first time we were faced with this type of situation due to the pandemic,” Yourk said. “We had limited time to create a solution that would enable continuity of care to potentially hundreds of troops with finite medical resources.”
Borrowing a text capability from the U.S. Army Dental Command on Fort Sam Houston, the Virtual Medical Center devised a system to care for trainees in isolation.
Each day, trainees receive a text with a link to a survey, which includes questions such as: are your symptoms worsening, do you have shortness of breath and do you need behavioral health support? The responses are reviewed by providers and medics each morning. If the responses indicate additional care is needed, the service member will either receive a virtual encounter with a nurse practitioner or an in-person visit by a mobile medic from Brooke Army Medical Center or MEDCoE, explained Leslie Smith, nurse practitioner with the Virtually Integrated Patient Readiness and Remote Care Clinic, or VIPRR.
Mobile medics, a unique Army asset, are able to take vital signs and communicate with a health care provider via video conferencing to determine the best course of action for treatment.
“Using a secure system, we are able to monitor for worsening symptoms as well as provide a final wellness check before trainees return to their unit,” Smith said. “We offer virtual and direct engagements, and medication as needed. It is going very smoothly.”
Among those screened was Pvt. Madison Marvel, who had been visiting her family in Georgia for the holidays and, shortly after her return, lost her sense of taste and smell. A positive test confirmed her suspicions.
“I also had body aches and headaches so figured I had COVID,” said Marvel, assigned to B Company, 188th Medical Battalion. “After a few days, I thought I was getting better, but my symptoms got worse.”
Marvel filled out the survey, noting she had worsening symptoms, and the mobile medics were at her door that afternoon. “I thought it was very considerate they came so quickly,” she said. “My mom was very relieved as well. She was worried about me and it was comforting for her to know I was being taken care of so well.”
The medics took Marvel’s vital signs, which were conveyed to the nurse practitioner on duty, and provided medication to relieve her symptoms.
After 12 days in quarantine, Marvel received a clean bill of health and returned to her unit.
“This program gives us the ability to have personal interaction with service members and a broader scope of care than they would have received otherwise,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ramsey Kantuncaamal, the Virtual Medical Center noncommissioned officer in charge. “That is what the Virtual Medical Center is here to do – support service members above all else.”
With the holidays over and travel reduced, the demand for virtual COVID care and monitoring has decreased among trainees; however, the lessons learned from this event will have a lasting impact, Yourk noted. The Virtual Medical Center is currently working with the training commands to develop a flexible, enduring capability using their own medics and resources.
While this application was focused on military trainees, the concept could be applied to a number of settings, including nursing homes and other areas with people in close quarters and at a higher risk of infection.