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Military Health System

Senior Medical Leaders Discuss COVID-19 Response

Image of Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency making remarks. Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, makes remarks during a panel discussion on the COVID-19 Emergency Response and Post-Pandemic National Security at the Sea-Air-Space Conference and Exposition at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, August 4 (Photo by: Jacob Moore, MHS Communications).

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At the beginning, the key to tackling the emerging COVID-19 pandemic was to quickly develop a comprehensive understanding of the virus, and then put a plan in place to fight it, explained Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency.

Place's remarks came during a panel discussion on the COVID-19 response and post-pandemic national security at the Sea-Air-Space Conference and Exposition at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor in Maryland, August 4.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Eric Thompson, vice president and director of strategy, policy, plans and programs for the Center for Naval Analysis, and included Place, Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. (Dr.) Bruce Gillingham and Coast Guard Rear Adm. (Dr.) Dana Thomas, director of health, safety and work-life for the Coast Guard.

Early in the pandemic, Place said, the mission of military and public health officials was, first and foremost, to understand how to frame the problem.

"What is it? How do you diagnose it? How is it transmitted? How can you protect yourself from it? How can you treat it? What are the right diagnostic tools?" were some of the questions asked in early 2020,Place said.

Another concern Place shared was whether the Department of Defense had the correct systems in place to combat the disease, either at individual locations or throughout the department.

Quick action and early understanding of the virus drove the number of DOD laboratories that were able to test for COVID-19 from 11 in February 2020 to approximately 177 currently.

The integrated nature of the Military Health System pre-pandemic greatly assisted in DOD's readiness, Place said.

"We have a system in place that knows how to [integrate care]. We have a system in place that knows how to talk to each other. We have a system that has a centralized logistics arm, a centralized pharmacy arm. We already had on-the-shelf pandemic plans," said Place.

While perhaps not perfect or designed for a pandemic on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic these pre-existing plans helped position the DOD to respond.

Military personnel on a panel
A panel on the COVID-19 Emergency Response and Post-Pandemic National Security hosted by Dr. Eric Thompson, vice president and director of strategy, policy, plans and programs for the Center for Naval Analysis, and consisting of Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. (Dr.) Bruce Gillingham and Coast Guard Rear Adm. (Dr.) Dana Thomas, director of health, safety and work-life for the Coast Guard, speaks to audience members at the Sea-Air-Space Conference and Exposition at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, August 4 (Photo by: Jacob Moore, MHS Communications).

Gillingham added that these plans extended to working with other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to support the civilian pandemic response outside of the DOD.

"To General Place's point, the framework was there. The way that we were set up within the Military Health System lent itself (to the response)," said Gillingham. "Early on, we established a really good battle rhythm of interagency coordination."

He also commended Place and the DHA for their coordination of vaccine distribution.

"Hats off to General Place and his team at the Defense Health Agency for providing the central coordination, and establishing and leading the OPT, the Operational Planning Team to say, "how are we going to distribute the vaccine?" and then working through the services to execute," said Gillingham. "That really is a very effective model that I think we can leverage into the future."

Gillingham said that he is continuing to push his sailors to get vaccinated and, for him, getting vaccinated is a "game changer."

"We continue to push for our force to get vaccinated. It's a readiness issue for us, first and foremost. If you're vaccinated, you're much less likely to get very ill or be hospitalized, so you're going to be in the game," said Gillingham.

We would not send our folks into combat without flak and Kevlar. The enemy, this time, is a virus and we have a biological body armor for them to take and use to protect themselves," he added.

Place also took the opportunity to remind those in attendance that the battle against COVID-19 is not over.

"I think one of the things that many of us believe - which is a fallacy - is that [COVID-19] is going to go away. It's not going away, just like influenza is not going away. And the thing about many viruses is they tend to mutate, and they tend to do things that keep them alive."

He noted, however, that the DOD medical team has an "insatiable curiosity," and that medical research within the department is in a continuous process of improvement.

The full discussion can be found here.

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Last Updated: January 25, 2023
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