86 MDG COVID-19 task force keeps KMC safe

The 86th Medical Group COVID-19 Drive-Thru awaits patients at Ramstein Air Base, Nov. 20. Patients in need of COVID-19 testing arrive and exit through a drive-thru system to protect the Ramstein clinic from COVID-19 exposure.

Imagine locating potentially dozens of people who came into contact with one COVID-19 patient over the past 14 days of their life. Then another person close to them tests positive, and now their contacts over the past 14 days have to be notified.

Now imagine doing that every day.

That is a day in the life of the 86th Medical Group Public Health flight, a key part of the group’s COVID-19 task force that contact traces positive cases on the base.

“Tracing is probably one of the hardest things (for us) because we rely so much on the individual to remember who they’ve been in contact with and where they’ve been,” said Senior Master Sgt. Camille Horton, 86th MDG senior enlisted leader for COVID-19 operations.

Since March the 86th MDG has worked hard to keep the Kaiserslautern Military Community healthy.

The COVID-19 task force is made up of 23 Airmen, with the combined efforts of multiple departments and squadrons in the 86th MDG. Other units on Ramstein help to facilitate COVID-19 testing, such as the 86th Security Forces Squadron, 86th Vehicle Readiness Squadron and 721st Aerial Port Squadron.

“We try to share the wealth so that one individual squadron isn’t bearing the brunt of it,” said Lt. Col. Jaime Rojas, 86th Airlift Wing public health emergency officer. “It helps our COVID-19 operations.”

One of the frequent challenges for Horton and Rojas as task force leaders is adapting to rapidly changing guidance, whether from the Department of Defense, Air Force or German laws.

“We always try to be as flexible as possible, but when we’re dealing with COVID-19, quarantine and isolations, those dates aren’t flexible, unfortunately,” Rojas said.

Another challenge the task force has to combat is fluctuations in numbers. One week may have low numbers, but the next week could have the task force combating a sudden spike in cases.

“Each time we have a case, that person is going to be identified and notified by their physician,” Rojas said. “Then Public Health is going to identify that individual’s close contacts, and those close contacts are going to be called and instructed to quarantine for 14 days. So you can imagine if someone wasn’t following the rules, it has significant impacts on missions on base.”

Rojas emphasizes that ignoring health guidelines has a human cost on the lives of the task force. Multiple positive COVID-19 tests puts massive pressure on the team, making it harder for them to perform their jobs.

“Our public health professionals work seven days a week, and our providers work six days a week,” Rojas said. “And they’ve been doing these operations since March. One person’s laxity on the rules can put significant stress on our people.”

Despite these challenges, what keeps Rojas passionate about his position is watching his teammates learn.

“One of the things I look forward to now is seeing my subject matter experts truly become subject matter experts,” Rojas said. “I look around and see how much these guys have grown, and the ability and autonomy that we’ve given them to go ahead and make these decisions even when we’re at a high ops tempo base.”

The resiliency of the COVID-19 task force was essential on a difficult day in early November when a fresh team was tasked with facilitating testing for an influx of personnel who required testing, leaving the COVID-19 drive-thru completely full.

“We had brand new people on the team who didn’t have the opportunity to get comfortable or know what the process was,” Horton said. “It was a group of people that picked up on everything we briefly went over that morning and they were able to knock it out of the park with (minimal) training.”

Another satisfying aspect of the senior enlisted position for COVID-19 operations is seeing additional perspectives from Airmen augmentees outside the medical group, Horton said.

“Most people come into the medical group as a patient,” Horton said. “But this time they’re actually an employee of the medical group, and they can see the opposite side of things and what we deal with on a day-to-day basis. They understand now, ‘Okay, the medical group is really doing some awesome things over here.’”

Overall, 86th MDG Airmen emphasized face coverings, following German guidelines and keeping the amount of close contacts to a minimum.

“We understand that we’re social in nature, but for us to get from point A to point B, we’re going to have to make some difficult choices so that we can get to where we all want to be,” Rojas said.

For more information about the COVID-19 Hotline, current 86th MDG operations or local guidance, visit Ramstein’s COVID-19 page at https://www.ramstein.af.mil/COVID-19/.