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Air Force updates medical courses with COVID-19 content, procedures

Two technicians in full PPE in a lab Staff Sgt. Alexis Shodeke (left) and Renee Mayhon, both medical laboratory technicians in the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine’s Epidemiology Laboratory, prepare to load new samples in June 2020 onto the Roche 8800 for COVID polymerise chain reaction testing. The Epi Lab is the sole clinical reference lab in the Air Force, and USAFSAM is part of AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge)

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Air Force medical instructors and trainers are improving curriculum and adapting procedures to account for COVID-19 operations.

COVID-19 has shed new light on the methods of conducting medical training and education. The U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, conducts mission-essential courses while also delivering a medical force able to accomplish every assigned mission.

“This pandemic has pushed medical readiness to the forefront,” said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Jason Herndon, School of Aerospace Medicine Office of the Dean Superintendent. “USAFSAM continues to innovate to improve our medical capabilities at home and on the battlefield.”

Training programs across the School of Aerospace Medicine are advancing their infectious disease and control training by incorporating lessons learned from the ongoing COVID-19 response, specifically in training Airmen to care for patients during aeromedical evacuations using the Negatively Pressurized Conex.

“We are bringing experiences from those who have been part of the COVID-19 response to inform and improve our training in infectious disease response,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Elizabeth Schnaubelt, Center for Sustainment of Trauma Readiness Skills, Omaha, Nebraska. “Tech Sergeant Victor Kipping-Cordoba, C-STARS Omaha public health non-commissioned officer in charge, and I have both been involved in training Airmen on the Negatively Pressurized Conex, equipping our medical Airmen with the skills needed to safely move and care for patients with COVID-19. We are also developing a separate course on high-level disease containment transport.”

The School of Aerospace Medicine’s C-STARS Omaha program, which focuses on training infectious disease medics on highly hazardous communicable diseases, is also using their COVID-19 patient care experience in upcoming courses.

“Our biocontainment care course, for example, has largely been focused on Ebola and other highly pathogenic respiratory viruses,” explains Schnaubelt. “Because of our partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, we have been involved with their COVID-19 response, providing care to patients in our biocontainment and COVID-19 units. This experience will further enhance our curriculum.”

The C-STARS Omaha team has been involved in COVID-19 response since before it was categorized as a pandemic. They helped in the repatriation efforts of U.S. citizens arriving from China and the evacuation of citizens from a cruise ship.

“Being involved early in the planning, execution and care of COVID-19 patients has advanced our efforts in our current training and will continue to inform future training,” said Schnaubelt.

Additionally, COVID-19 has impacted how courses are taught to minimize risk of COVID-19 while also ensuring medical Airmen receive the necessary training to be fully qualified. USAFSAM’s entire course list was reviewed to determine which courses could be moved online.

“COVID-19 has changed the way we can operate with more classes moving online,” said Herndon. “We have reduced the number of in-person courses offered, and courses, like USAFSAM’s basic instructor course, are being offered online to keep Airmen safe.”

For courses that still have to meet in person, the School of Aerospace Medicine’s team has gone to extraordinary means to ensure the safety of both their staff and students. In addition to adapting to federal and state guidance, they have implemented strict physical distancing measures in the classrooms, ensured the wearing of face coverings, and enforced wellness checks.

“There are some courses, like our Flight Nurse and Aeromedical Evacuation Technician course, as well as our Critical Care Air Transport Team course, that do not work as an online course,” explained Elizabeth Miller, School of Aerospace Medicine En Route Care Training Department deputy director. “To keep Airmen in these courses safe, they are required to wear personal protective equipment, like masks, eyewear and gloves, when they are taking part in those simulations.”

As Herndon explains, COVID-19 has pushed instructors and trainers to be more innovative.

“The ongoing pandemic has forced us to change our line of thinking and how we prepare our medics,” said Herndon. “Before COVID-19, Air Force Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, Air Force Surgeon General, would say that we should think as if the box never existed, versus thinking outside the box. I believe that has never been truer than now as we train our medical force for this new normal. USAFSAM remains committed in their effort to continue its education mission despite a global pandemic.”

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