WASHINGTON (AP) — A Covid-19 patient was in respiratory distress. The Army nurse knew she had to act quickly.
It was the peak of this year’s omicron surge and an Army medical team was helping in a Michigan hospital. Regular patient beds were full. So was the intensive care. But the nurse heard of an open spot in an overflow treatment area, so she and another team member raced the gurney across the hospital to claim the space first, denting a wall in their rush.
When she saw the dent, Lt. Col. Suzanne Cobleigh, the leader of the Army team, knew the nurse had done her job. “She’s going to damage the wall on the way there because he’s going to get that bed," Cobleigh said. "He's going to get the treatment he needs. That was the mission.”
That nurse's mission was to get urgent care for her patient. Now, the U.S. military mission is to use the experiences of Cobleigh's team and other units pressed into service against the coronavirus pandemic to prepare for the next crisis threatening a large population, whatever its nature.
Their experiences, said Gen. Glen VanHerck, will help shape the size and staffing of the military’s medical response so the Pentagon can provide the right types and numbers of forces needed for another pandemic, global crisis or conflict.
One of the key lessons learned was the value of small military teams over mass movements of personnel and facilities in a crisis like the one wrought by Covid-19.
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In the early days of the pandemic, the Pentagon steamed hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles, and set up massive hospital facilities in convention centers and parking lots, in response to pleas from state government leaders. The idea was to use them to treat non-Covid-19 patients, allowing hospitals to focus on the more acute pandemic cases. But while images of the military ships were powerful, too often many beds went unused. Fewer patients needed non-coronavirus care than expected, and hospitals were still overwhelmed by the pandemic.
A more agile approach emerged: having military medical personnel step in for exhausted hospital staff members or work alongside them or in additional treatment areas in unused spaces.
“It morphed over time,” VanHerck, who heads U.S. Northern Command and is responsible for homeland defense, said of the response.
Overall, about 24,000 U.S. troops were deployed for the pandemic, including nearly 6,000 medical personnel to hospitals and 5,000 to help administer vaccines. Many did multiple tours. That mission is over, at least for now.
Cobleigh and her team members were deployed to two hospitals in Grand Rapids from December to February, as part of the U.S. military’s effort to relieve civilian medical workers. And just last week the last military medical team that had been deployed for the pandemic finished its stint at the University of Utah Hospital and headed home.
VanHerck told The Associated Press his command is rewriting pandemic and infectious disease plans, and planning wargames and other exercises to determine if the U.S. has the right balance of military medical staff in the active duty and reserves.
During the pandemic, he said, the teams’ make-up and equipment needs evolved. Now, he's put about 10 teams of physicians, nurses and other staff — or about 200 troops — on prepare-to-deploy orders through the end of May in case infections shoot up again. The size of the teams ranges from small to medium.
Dr. Kencee Graves, inpatient chief medical officer at the University of Utah Hospital, said the facility finally decided to seek help this year because it was postponing surgeries to care for all the Covid-19 patients and closing off beds because of staff shortages.