The effects of the pandemic have inevitably put a strain on the workforce; perhaps none more-so than those working in the medical field. Fortunately, a great deal of the strain on Fort Gordon has been alleviated thanks to ongoing collaborative efforts between the installation’s Army Public Health Nursing branch (APHN) and various Fort Gordon personnel; namely the command and its support teams.
APHN’s mission is to “enable total force readiness through promoting population-focused health, mitigating disease and injury, assuring force health protection, informing policy, and responding to emerging health threats.” It is essentially the Army’s equivalent of the Department of Public Health, explained Lt. Col. Dionicia Russell, chief of APHN, Eisenhower Army Medical Center.
“We have to not just educate people, but any infectious disease, not just COVID, that comes across Fort Gordon, we have to actually trace and report to the Health Department,” Russell said.
When the first COVID-19 case on Fort Gordon was confirmed in February 2020, Russell began preparing for the worst. By mid-March, much of the installation had temporarily closed as the number of confirmed cases rose. Accomplishing APHN’s mission was already a challenge with just herself and two other nurses on staff. The added need for tracing COVID-19 made it nearly impossible for an already strained staff.
“When that happened, the Army sent out some guidance that if our numbers started going up, we could reach out to the post and they gave us a standardized process we could follow to do contact tracing and to do cleaning teams as that increased,” Russell said. “We took that guidance when we saw our numbers started inching up.”
Reaching out to the installation’s command team and Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, Russell said she received an outpouring of support from all sides. Her request for borrowed military manpower was approved, and a dedicated COVID-19 contact tracing team (CTT) was established. CTTs consist of service members from all backgrounds and branches of service. They serve on 90-day rotations. Their duties include – but are not limited to – calling patients who tested positive for COVID-19 and instructing them on their next steps. Using a detailed questionnaire, CTTs trace patients’ movements in an attempt to notify other potentially exposed persons and prevent further spread of the virus.
“The tracers are trained on how to ask questions, and a nurse is there in case one of the tracers comes across where one of the individuals who tested positive has any other medical issue,” Russell said.
CTTs ask questions about patients’ symptoms and living conditions to ensure the best possible plan of action, which can range from staying at home in isolation or being advised to be seen at a hospital immediately. Everything is sent to the patient via email so they know exactly what they should do.
“All of it is education that has been approved by our providers,” Russell said. “It is a monumental (task) when the tracers do the packets … they send the packets back to the nurse, the nurse looks through the entire packet … if anything is missing, she sends it back to the tracer and the tracer completes it,” Russell said.
Once CTTs were established, the next step was to establish COVID-19 cleaning teams (CCTs), which Russell managed again thanks to command support, she said.
“When we were setting up the contact tracing teams, we knew it was important to set up cleaning teams, but at the time our focus was trying to get all of those cases traced,” Russell said.
When a person tests positive for COVID-19, the area in which the person was must be thoroughly disinfected before the space can be re-inhabited. Rather than send out a contracted cleaning team to disinfect, which can cost tens of thousands per cleaning, APHN developed a class. Classes are currently led by 1st Lt. Aboubacar Coulibaly, environmental health officer with EAMC, every other Tuesday, in a “train the trainer” format. Everyone who takes the class is encouraged to take their knowledge and share it with others in their organization, thus creating a CCT.
“The more people we get trained up on how to properly disinfect, the faster they can return to their space,” said Coulibaly. “It saves the Army a lot of money and contributes to mission readiness.”
Spc. Travis Spires, U.S. Army Cyber Command, a recent graduate of the class, said he learned a lot and plans on teaching the class to others in his unit.
“There’s definitely a lot more to it than just wiping a surface down or spraying it with Lysol,” Spires said. “It’s a good class everyone should take.”
Although Russell hopes there comes a day when CTTs and CCTs are no longer needed, she said she struggles to find the words to describe how thankful she is to have them.
“Our post has gone above and beyond … I am really proud of what we’re doing here on Fort Gordon,” Russell said. “I am so thankful because we would have never been able to do this mission without the support, so what a beautiful collaboration we have had with the entire post.”
COVID-19 disinfection training is held at the Department of Preventive Medicine, APHN office, in Building 38701. Classes are limited to 10 people and are on a first come, first serve basis. Anyone interested in signing up for the class should contact Coulibaly at 706-787-1215.