WASHINGTON — Many of the emergency medical facilities the Army built in support of COVID-19 response efforts remain in operation. Others stand ready for a future threat.
Should the nation suffer from a global crisis, natural disaster or another pandemic, Army leaders believe they will be better equipped to respond to another national emergency. And it can learn from the lessons during the service’s response to the pandemic.
The Army still has nine medical teams supporting health care workers at hospitals nationwide. In the past year and a half, the branch has mobilized about 50,000 Soldiers in support of the response efforts.
“It's just like 9/11. There is a day, maybe in our lives, something like this is going to happen again,” said now retired Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, former Army Corps of Engineers commander. “All of the designs for all that we built are all in the states and cities. Some of the facilities are still there ... dormant. They’ve got [patient] beds that are waiting for something to happen.”
To date, the Army has delivered 485 million COVID-19 vaccines and administered more than 400 million.
Recent numbers show that the number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations have been declining, however, the Army’s surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, said the Army must remain diligent. The Army leaders, speaking during the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition on Oct. 13, said they can continue to strengthen relationships between the service and federal and state agencies, which improved response times.
“It's imperative that we continue to keep our foot on the pedal of force health protection of not just our Soldiers and our civilians, but our family members and the nation,” Dingle said.
During the onset of the pandemic then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked Semonite and a team of engineers to assist with the hospital bed shortage in the state. The Army learned that having more hospital workers and health care professionals could alleviate the need for more beds and larger hospitals. The ability to call upon National Guard and Army Reserve components also proved critical, said Maj. Gen. Bob Whittle, U.S. Army North deputy commander.
The Corps developed a plan with teams of engineers to build makeshift hospital facilities at college dorms, hotels, sports venues and convention centers across the nation. The Corps worked with the National Guard and Army Medical Command to set up makeshift hospitals.
Whittle said that the pandemic response allowed the service to reexamine how it mobilizes and integrates its forces.
The Army Reserve’s largest mobilization in history contributed to the vaccination efforts in underserved communities in 25 states, including locations in North Dakota and New Mexico.
“The big question that we had was, how fast could we do this?” said Maj. Gen. Joe Robinson, commander of the 3rd Medical Command, Deployment Support. “And could we be relevant with the speed that COVID was progressing? Can we actually get Reserve Soldiers out of their civilian occupations and into the front lines in a time that was actually going to make a difference?”
Whittle said in July 2019 the Army first labeled a list of “Black Swan” events that included responses to crises that included a pandemic. Whittle said the Army laid out plans but could not have predicted the scope and scale of the virus’ spread.
The Army also faced the challenge of educating the public about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, former director of the Army Acquisition Corps, said the nation must revamp its approach toward strategic communications on social media platforms. While he applauded the service’s multi-command response to the pandemic he noted that the country failed to sway Americans who remained on the fence on whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The biggest lesson learned is the value of strategic communications,” said Ostrowski, who also served as deputy to retired Gen. Gustave Perna, the former commander of Army Materiel Command during Operation Warp Speed. “Social media has completely changed the landscape of this country. And until we get ahead of that, we are going to continue to be challenged in that particular arena. That is our biggest failure.”
The Army not only helped lead the battle against coronavirus, it also developed weapons against it. The service joined the scramble to develop viable vaccines as part of Operation Warp Speed, which combined the efforts of the Defense Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command spent 18 months supporting government agencies to help detect, treat and prevent the virus, said Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Laragione, the command’s senior enlisted leader. Laragione added that Telehealth assisted with treatments by using a network to connect critical care expertise to health care clinicians operating in limited resource environments.
“If COVID has taught us anything it is [knowing] the value of DOD investments in medical research and development, as well as the importance of collaboration among other government agencies,” Laragione said. “We must continue to build upon these relationships in the advancements we've made together to bring an end to COVID-19 and prepare for our future threats.”
Army scientists developed imaging techniques for the testing of COVID-19 vaccines and antibody treatments. Laragione said animal testing has enabled researchers to replicate the disease to develop its own vaccine, which has entered phase one of clinical trials.
The Army’s battle against the virus began with an impromptu meeting inside the Pentagon in March 2020.
Then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville called upon Army leaders to formulate a plan to protect more than 1 million Soldiers and civilians.
“It was our secretary and our chief that said, ‘OK, it's time,’” Dingle said. “We had watched the pandemic start. We watched it hit our Soldiers and our forces in Europe and Korea. We saw this tsunami coming.”
The Army sent Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces to New York City and then elsewhere. It rolled out safety measures and shifted to partial telework status for Soldiers for the first time while continuing to participate in scheduled joint exercises and trainings.
“It was amazing to me how adaptable our teammates were,” Laragione said.