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NEWS | Aug. 27, 2020

PHC-P EMBLs shift gears to fight COVID-19

By Amber Kurka Public Health Command-Pacific

For Public Health Command-Pacific Environmental Molecular Biology Laboratory personnel keeping others safe from disease is a top priority.

Located at Camp Zama, Japan, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, the EMBLs’ mission is to protect the health of the force from vector borne diseases found in ticks, mosquitos, and fleas by testing arthropod samples found in austere environments.

These services provide commanders insight to help mitigate disease risk and exposure in the Department of Defense community.

“Our EMBLs are always on the cutting edge of identifying new diseases emerging in our area of responsibility,” explained Capt. Bradley Kearney, a biochemist and the PHC-P Laboratory Sciences director. “Normally, this is going to be vector borne diseases, but the EMBL mission is evolving.”

In January, Kearney and his team began tracking the news of an emerging new virus, SARS-CoV-2, with the help of Dr. Michael Butel, PHC-P’s chief of epidemiology. As the new disease, COVID-19, evolved, the team began to strategize ways the team could help clinical labs in Japan and Washington in the event of a pandemic.

“We were having meetings frequently in preparation for what we anticipated would be a pandemic before it was hardly even called an epidemic,” said Kearney. “We normally don’t do human testing, but we were very far leaning forward in offering our hand out to assist other laboratory facilities, which have the certification to do human testing but did not have sufficient manpower or equipment to maintain a sustained testing surge.”

As the weeks continued, PHC-P leadership and the EMBL teams worked to identify critical laboratory assets and skill sets to help with clinical testing at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington and the Naval Health Research Center satellite laboratory co-located at Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan.

“Laboratory assets can take a very long time to spin up,” Kearney explained. “To get someone qualified to do laboratory testing the minimum threshold requires more than 50 weeks of advanced individual training, then an individual will need to do months of training in a clinical hospital. In order to have a rapid response we tapped into those that already had the training in place. Since our team conducts vector laboratory testing regularly we had 100% of our staff from both Japan and JBLM go to support clinical efforts due to the limited availability of laboratory testers.”

To help fight COVID-19, Gary Crispell, a microbiologist, and Kearney launched COVID-19 testing in Japan while Milagros Solá, a microbiologist, and Spc. Darius Torres, a medical laboratory technician, supplemented the clinical lab staff at MAMC.

“You have to be highly qualified and trained on the right equipment to do COVID-19 testing,” said Solá. “We have to make sure that we are following all of the proper protocols to not only keep ourselves safe but to also make sure the samples are processed accurately. The results could be life or death for someone. Additionally, it takes a really special person to work under the stress and pressure of processing COVID-19 samples, because the results were needed by the medical staff yesterday.”

One of the most time-consuming portions of COVID-19 testing involved lysing, the process of breaking down a cell in order to release the genetic material for each sample.

“Every sample needs to be lysed and it could be a long process, since you have to pipette the sample multiple times before it can go onto an instrument to process it,” explained Torres. “If you don’t have enough people in the lab, you end up wasting a lot of time going back and forth between lysing the samples and running the equipment.”

By supplementing the lab staff at MAMC, Torres and Solá were able to take some of the stress off their clinical counterparts.

Kearney and Crispell, on the other hand, worked around the clock with one Navy contractor, Sheila Trisler, to single-handedly set up testing efforts for DoD personnel and family members stationed in Japan.

“Rather than send samples back to San Diego to be processed, which would take precious time, we partnered with the Navy to stand up a testing location at the NHRC satellite lab,” explained Kearney. “We moved our specialized instrument from Camp Zama to Yokosuka and were able to run the first tests for DoD members within a week of the move.”

The new ability to test in Japan helped keep the DoD and naval missions going by quickly identifying pockets of COVID-19 and reducing spread within the community.

“For me, it was very gratifying to run these clinical tests in order to clear personnel to go out on missions,” said Crispell. “But the most gratifying thing was when we found pockets of COVID in our community and worked with preventive medicine teams. They were able to respond quickly and conduct contact tracing to extinguish clusters of COVID.”

To reduce outbreaks, both locations partnered with preventive medicine teams to identify and test individuals who may have come in contact with COVID-19.

“It truly is a team effort between laboratories and preventive medicine,” said Kearney. “Together, we do a lot of work behind the scenes to reduce the spread of diseases. Often people don’t even know about work we do together since we are stopping outbreaks before they happen.”

Kearney pointed out that while the overall footprint of microbiology and preventive medicine are relatively small within the medical community, the mission is extremely important, and they are ready to respond.

“Historically, disease and non-battle injuries have been the number one threat to military readiness,” said Kearney. “To help reduce this threat we are behind the scenes at all times ready to protect the DoD community as a whole.”

The ability to adapt and respond to the demands of COVID-19 has meant a lot to the PHC-P EMBL staff.

For Solá helping the MAMC clinical lab was extremely personal.

“Madigan was my first duty station,” said Solá. “I started out as an enlisted medical lab technician in 1993 and became the NCOIC. Three of the staff members that I used to work with are still there at the lab. I cannot explain how it makes me feel to be able to help my former teammates more than 25 years later as civilian employee. This mission is so incredibly important, I am very proud to help.”

While Solá has four years until retirement, Torres reflected on how this experience has impacted him as a young enlisted lab tech.

“A pandemic like this is not something that anyone ever expects. However, this experience has shown me that as a Soldier I’m not only able to battle what I was taught to fight, but together as a team we can battle such things as a pandemic.”

For Kearney, this experience is why he joined the Army.

“The involvement with COVID-19 testing really gets at the reason why I joined the Army. I joined to provide my expertise and to provide my services as a biochemist to help support the warfighter and their families,” said Kearney.

As members of PHC-P, Crispell, Kearney, Solá and Torres’s dedication to care for the health and well-being of others embraced the PHC-P credo of “100/0!” which means 100% accountability and responsibility and zero excuses for not giving your best every day.

“Almost anything is achievable when all of the parties are invested,” said Crispell. “To me nothing is more important than the service members and civilians that we service.”

As the Army continues to adapt to the demands of COVID-19, PHC-P EMBLs will continue to lead the way by providing reach back support for technical questions, and providing supplemental hands-on testing support in the event of a testing surge.

“For years, the Army’s number one priority has been readiness,” said Kearney. “The combined team of our Soldier, scientist and civilian workforce has directly and measurably made a positive impact on readiness during this pandemic. The Army laboratory enterprise stands with the rest of our healthcare force to continue the fight against COVID-19 and to support our warfighters with any medical challenge the future may hold.”