Public Health Command Europe celebrates first anniversary of COVID-19 surveillance testing

By Michelle ThumMay 26, 2021

Nina Gruhn
Nina Gruhn, a senior microbiologist at Public Health Command Europe, demonstrates the COVID-19 surveillance testing process. (Photo Credit: Russell Toof) VIEW ORIGINAL

LANDSTUHL, Germany - As much of Europe is in the midst of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, asymptomatic testing of individuals continues to play a key role in reducing the spread of the virus. May marks the one-year anniversary of Public Health Command Europe’s Laboratory Sciences division standing up a laboratory section for COVID-19 surveillance testing.

The Laboratory Sciences division continues to test service members, civilians and their families who are moving to Europe. They also test service members prior to deployment or training in order to determine the prevalence and infection rates of troops.

“With the surveillance testing program, we ensure critical missions can be performed, such as personnel deploying or going into a training environment,” said Nina Gruhn, a senior microbiologist and program manager at Public Health Command Europe. “Our testing efforts allow service members, civilians and families to PCS (permanent change of station) without jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of others.”

PHCE recently passed the 200k milestone of processed COVID-19 surveillance samples. Since May 2020, PHCE has performed COVID-19 surveillance testing for Army, Air Force and Navy personnel throughout the U.S. European Command footprint, with additional support to U.S. Forces in U.S. Central Command.

“We had a steep learning curve,” added Gruhn. “Within the last year, we were able to improve work processes and significantly decrease the turnaround time of samples.”

“Receiving the results of the COVID-19 samples is very time sensitive,” said Col. Jeremy Bears, laboratory director for Public Health Command Europe. “Therefore, the Soldiers are working 24/7 to be able to achieve a turnaround time of less than 48 hours for the large volume of samples submitted to PHCE’s lab.”

“The Laboratory Sciences division can process upwards of 2,000 samples per day using high throughput polymerase chain reaction methods developed by the PHCE lab,” added Bears.

“Our surveillance testing team is surprisingly small comprising less than 25 percent of our total laboratory staff,” said Gruhn. “Our team consists of junior enlisted Soldiers, laboratory technicians and food inspectors, who can execute each step of the entire process.”

Each Soldier is fully trained in the five-step operation, which entails receiving, sorting, pooling, analyzing, and reporting the results.

“PHCE was the first public health lab in the Army doing this type of testing,” said Gruhn. “To this day, PHCE has processed more than six times the amount of COVID-19 samples than other military laboratories.”

PHCE’s laboratory is an ISO 17025 accredited full-service public health laboratory, that also provides biological and chemical analytical services such as testing for bacterial contamination in food and water or for heavy metals like lead and pesticides in water, air or soil.