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Air Force continues combat patient evac amidst pandemic

  • Published
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Air Force aeromedical evacuation delivers lifesaving global patient movement, and even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains a no-fail mission for warfighters in a combat zone.

“Our aeromedical evacuation system continues to serve a critical role amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Col. Charles Clinton, Chief of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “We are still evacuating patients and providing high-level en route care, while taking extra precautions to keep everyone safe.”

Patients with either suspected or confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses are safely transported via the Transport Isolation System and the Negatively Pressurized Conex. These systems have been specifically designed to transport patients with highly infectious diseases while limiting potential exposure and spread to the aircrews.

For all other patients requiring transport, aeromedical evacuation crews and Airmen at staging facilities are taking extra precautions at every stage of en route care. All Airmen closely follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as Department of Defense and Air Mobility Command guidelines to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

“In addition to face masks, every patient movement mission follows infection-control guidelines and protocols,” said Col. Russel Frantz, Aeromedical Evacuation Operations deputy director, Air Mobility Command. “Patient movement infection control guidelines require our clinicians to follow standard precautions, including hand washing before and between contact with patients, the use of gloves and other personal protective equipment, and appropriately handling medical waste.”

Thorough screenings are conducted to ensure patients are not at risk of spreading COVID-19.

“All crew members are directed to self-monitor and report if they suspect they have COVID-19 symptoms,” said Frantz. “Crew members are also directed to limit contact with persons outside of the crew and limit off-base travel to minimize exposure during en-route stops. When crews are deployed for patient movement missions, they follow quarantine procedures prior to executing their mission. Patients and passengers are also screened prior to boarding the aircraft.”

In addition to screening measures, crew members are encouraged to take every precaution to minimize exposure during flight.

“Typically, prior to the pandemic, aircrews had relative freedom moving about the cabin,” said Clinton. “To keep everyone safe and minimize the risk of spread, we limit our aircrew interactions with patients and medics as much as possible.”

These extra safety measures continue at the 316th Aeromedical Staging Facility at Andrews Air Force Base, where operations have not slowed down.

“We average one inbound mission from overseas every week, and between one to four outbound U.S. missions each week,” said Maj. Marlene Reese, flight commander, 316th Aeromedical Staging Facility. “What has changed is adhering to CDC and AMC guidelines to keep patients and crews safe, which has not impacted our ability to complete the mission.”

Additional precautions are taken once on the ground. Crews are encouraged to limit movement to only essential travel and the aircraft itself goes through a disinfection process before and after each mission.

Ensuring aeromedical evacuation missions continue can be challenging during a pandemic, but as Clinton explains, it is an essential capability for service members.

“One of the great benefits of our current aeromedical evacuation system is the security it gives our warfighters,” said Clinton. “Anyone on deployment knows that if something happens to them, there is a reliable medical system ready to care for them no matter what is going on in the world. It is critical to continue flying our missions and provide security to our warfighters. All aeromedical evacuation crews bring their best to our patients and this has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”