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Maintaining Warfighting Readiness amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Transportation systems technicians from the 452nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, and aircrew from the 16th Airlift Squadron, use a K-loader to load 150 U.S. Agency for International Development-provided ventilators to be delivered to Moscow, Russia, onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, at March Air Reserve Base, California, June 1, 2020.

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SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (December 10, 2020) – As the coronavirus began affecting communities around the world almost nine months ago, U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) found innovative ways to protect its people, while continuing its mission to project the Joint Force globally.

In March, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced the Department of Defense’s (DOD) pandemic priorities. The DOD’s top priority continues to be protecting its people (military members, dependents, civilians, and contractors), followed by ensuring the safeguarding of the nation’s mission capabilities, and assisting the whole-of-government approach to protect the American people.

“Our priorities directly mirror the secretary’s priorities,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, commander, USTRANSCOM during a press briefing March 31. “We’re focused on protecting and preserving the force against the COVID-19 outbreak, and maintaining mission readiness.”

Throughout, USTRANSCOM has remained focused on warfighting readiness, enabling the command to project and sustain the Joint Force anywhere, anytime. Lyons also emphasized balance to take care of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, civilians, and their families serving across the globe.

For example, to protect passengers flying onboard the Patriot Express, a commercially-chartered collection of flights that transports military members and their families on official duty, USTRANSCOM took innovative action. The combatant command funded the study to learn how to make this travel safer. Testing occurred in August on both a Boeing 767-300 and 777-200 airframe. These planes were selected because they are commonly chartered by USTRANSCOM for the Patriot Express.

USTRANSCOM had already directed the wear of face coverings by military personnel, civilian employees, family members, contractors, and other federal workers at passenger terminals, as well as on all military or commercially-contracted aircraft. Still, the command invested in the study to see if its mitigation measures were providing the safest possible means of transportation.

At two- to four-minute intervals, tests simulated infectious particles released into the aircraft cabins, which were populated by mannequins, with and without face masks, while on the ground and in the air. In October, the command announced the test’s results, which reflected a very low exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like COVID-19.

“USTRANSCOM’s goal is to provide the safest possible means of transportation for military members, dependents and contractors,” said U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, deputy commander, USTRANSCOM during a virtual press conference to announce the test’s results. “This test will help enhance our understanding of what is going on in the cabin. We hope to find out how the virus patterns spread and how rapidly the virus is filtered out of the aircraft.”

However, leaders at USTRANSCOM weren’t satisfied and asked what else could be done to protect passengers during official travel.

Another USTRANSCOM effort to keep Patriot Express passengers safe involved a recent initiation of on-site, expedited coronavirus testing at two departure locations, Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall Airport, Baltimore, Maryland, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Seattle, Washington. Results are normally available within 15 minutes. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of all screened travelers, who completed the pre-flight questionnaire and in-terminal temperature check, and who are not showing COVID symptoms, receive this rapid test.

“I want to make sure we are transporting passengers in the safest, most efficient manner possible and to make sure we are doing all we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said USTRANSCOM Senior Enlisted Leader, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jason France during a visit to BWI in November. “This on-site testing will also help the Defense Department establish a common baseline of testing for our service members, civilians and their families traveling to overseas duty locations.”

The ongoing pandemic brought other challenges as well, and creative problem solving was encouraged at all levels to sustain air, sea, and ground operations in the contested COVID environment.

“In March, General Lyons oriented the air mobility community to the potential for moving large numbers of contagious personnel with COVID-19,” according to U.S. Air Force Col. John Andrus, USTRANSCOM’s surgeon. “In response, the air mobility enterprise quickly pivoted and determined how to protect crew members while providing lifesaving medical transportation.”

On April 10, the Transport Isolation System (TIS), which was developed in response to the 2014 Ebola crisis, returned to duty and was used in the aeromedical evacuation of three U.S. government contractors who tested positive for COVID-19 from Afghanistan to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Modified to accommodate coronavirus patients, the TIS allows the in-flight containment of two to four infectious disease patients, while decreasing health risks to the aircrew and attending medical personnel.

“I couldn't be more proud of AMC [Air Mobility Command] warriors that were dusting off the Transport Isolation System, bringing that back out of the warehouse, refurbishing it and putting it into use in less than 90 days,” said Lyons.

Like the TIS’ creation during the Ebola epidemic, the Negatively Pressurized Conex (NPC) was developed in response to a USTRANSCOM Joint Urgent Operational Need published in late March. By the end of April, the NPC went from an idea drawn on a napkin to a proven concept. The 40-foot containment chamber can transport 23 COVID patients requiring medical attention or 30 with lesser needs. The NPC’s first operational mission occurred June 30, when 12 patients were safely moved aboard a C-17 from the Middle East to Ramstein.

To date, AMC crews have used the TIS and NPC to safely transport more than 290 patients on 45 separate missions.

USTRANSCOM’s mission is varied and touches service members and their families in different ways. The Defense Personal Property Program is responsible for the movement and storage of more than 400,000 household goods shipments, annually supporting military personnel, DOD civilians, and their families.

USTRANSCOM instituted quick measures to protect the health of those impacted by a move during the pandemic through enhanced protective measures. These include the requirement of moving industry representatives to wear face coverings, clean frequently-touched surfaces, and sanitize their hands often, while in the DOD member’s residence.

To address social distancing concerns, moving companies must minimize the number of workers in service members’ homes. These companies also have to provide written certification their personnel have been screened for illness prior to arrival. And if still concerned, the customer is empowered by USTRANSCOM policy to immediately stop the process and reschedule the move for a later date.

USTRANSCOM’s COVID response efforts reached well beyond the members of the DOD to include Americans stranded abroad due to intensified COVID-19 travel limitations. The command’s Repatriation Coordination Cell, established in late March to support the Department of State’s (DOS) efforts to bring U.S. citizens home, contracted 14 different commercial charter airlift flights to transport Americans from five separate African and Asian nations. In very short order, the cell organized the homecoming of more than 3,900 U.S. citizens.

“DOS undertook a herculean effort to repatriate Americans, and working with them to do our part was rewarding. This experience showed how quickly the team of professionals at USTRANSCOM can adapt operations to support another agency’s effort,” said U.S. Army Col. Aaron Angell, chief, Joint Operational Support Airlift Center Division, USTRANSCOM’s Operations Directorate. “This team of teams came together and accomplished the mission despite the challenges of operating in a COVID-19 environment.”

As the pandemic continued its global advance, other nations’ emergent needs surfaced, and USTRANSCOM responded to assist via its air component. On April 20, a C-17 transported COVID intensive care unit material and 12 passengers from Kelly Field, Texas, to Niamey, Niger. Similarly, a C-5 Galaxy, C-17 Globemaster, and C-130 Super Hercules aircraft moved 4,000 pounds of medical supplies from Manchester, United Kingdom, to Accra, Ghana, on April 24.

And USTRANSCOM-directed airlift continued delivering much-needed healthcare equipment overseas. On May 21 and June 4, C-17s from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, moved 200 U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-provided ventilators to Moscow, Russia. Likewise, on August 30, a C-17 assigned to Travis Air Force Base, California, transported 500 USAID-donated ventilators to Jakarta, Indonesia. The four-day mission accomplished the largest, single USAID ventilator delivery to date.

USTRANSCOM remains guided by initiative, creativity and selfless service to keep the Joint Force, its personnel, and their family members protected and safe.

“USTRANSCOM’s ability to respond swiftly to this very rapidly developing threat highlighted once again the commitment of the U.S. military to provide world class medical care to each and every teammate,” Andrus stated.

USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. Powered by dedicated men and women, TRANSCOM underwrites the lethality of the Joint Force, advances American interests around the globe, and provides our nation's leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.

For additional information, contact Laura Fogerty, USTRANSCOM public affairs, (618) 220-4999/5838, laura.t.fogerty.civ@mail.mil

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