Finding inspiration on the frontline

  • Published
  • By Col. Ilaina M. Wingler
  • 460th Medical Group

The last two years have presented many unique and unforeseen challenges for the 460th Medical Group. The early days of COVID were uncertain for everyone, with little information on this new virus that was sweeping across the country with unimaginable lethality. For the Medical Group, COVID quickly became an invisible enemy we couldn’t predict but were called to grapple with. Every day presented new challenges—for our technicians and providers, as the frontline staff in the clinics; for our Pharmacy, who rapidly developed a drive-through curbside operation for dispensing medications to our over 40,000 local veterans and 7,500 beneficiaries; and for our logistics team, who were charged with acquiring much-needed personal protective equipment when supplies were scarce and supply-chain breakdown was at its worst. As we learned more about the virus, we shifted our operations accordingly, always maintaining safety as our number one priority. With increased precautions both on the installation and outside it, we had hoped to see a decline in numbers—some sort of steady reassurance that things would eventually return to normal. However, we continue to feel the effects of COVID on Buckley and the reality is that operations for the MDG have likely changed forever.

On a Saturday evening in March 2020, the first COVID test was administered on Buckley Garrison. The test took place in the sick member’s garage in base housing, and the technician performing the test wore all the PPE recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—gloves, sterile gown, N95, face shield—then changed their clothes after testing and before entering their vehicle. We had seen cases spiking in the Denver area, but the pandemic had officially reached Buckley. Not long after, four medical technicians volunteered as expeditionary medics to Fort Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado Springs to assist with their in-patient units and COVID testing operations there. They each wore a full Powered Air Purifying Respirator unit, which involves a plastic suit and helmet and a battery powered belt that filters the air inside the hood. Hundreds of people were dying in Colorado and no one knew who would be next—the greatest precautions had to be taken. Soon thereafter, without any precedent to follow, our clinical staff adapted our patient care to a telehealth model so providers could continue to prescribe medications, write referrals, and assist with profiles and quarters. Our Public Health team stood up a 24-hour COVID phone for patients to report possible infection and seek testing, passing the phone through the medical group day in, day out so someone would always be there to answer. As the majority of Buckley Garrison was sent home to telework, the Medical Group manned a skeleton crew in the clinics and pharmacy, and erected an Alaska shelter outside our main building for drive-through COVID testing in all seasons. The weeks of quarantine turned into months, and the phrase “Mission Essential” quickly came to include the MDG.

Once the vaccine was released, our team launched a plan to stand up mass vaccination drives to ensure those driving our daily mission were protected against the virus and could continue to safeguard our nation. The vaccine was severely limited in the early days after its release, so we had no choice but to prioritize certain members for their own safety. We knew the dangers for our elderly relatives, young children, and family members with special health concerns were very real and frightening, but Buckley’s mission cannot waiver or fail. As medical providers, it was extremely challenging to deny “non-mission essential” members and their dependents the vaccine at a time when we wanted everyone to gain the benefits of vaccination. Fortunately, once the supply of vials opened up more, we vaccinated everyone as quickly as we could, and we continue to offer the vaccine for all Active Duty, Guard, Reserve, dependents, and veterans who have not yet been vaccinated. Our regularly offered vaccine lines accelerated our vaccination rate on the garrison, so Buckley was already ahead of the curve when the vaccine mandate came down in late September 2021.

Against the broader scale of the Air Force Medical Service (AFMS), the 460 MDG is a small organization, and our manning was stretched thin between vaccination efforts, the special demands of daily testing, and our own members needing to quarantine or stay home with sick children. In early 2021, the MDG was called upon to deploy four medics to Florida with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support the mass vaccination efforts there. Our medics administered hundreds of vaccines in the three months they were deployed, most to the vulnerable and elderly populations. Similar operations were launched in many states across the nation with the hope of accelerating the rate of vaccination in critically dense or underserved areas. This was the first stateside deployment of active duty personnel for a national emergency and it marked a turning point in military medicine. Readiness is at the core of the AFMS mission, which is to facilitate, sustain, and serve a medically ready force. Ensuring our Airmen and Guardians are protected against COVID has become a pillar of readiness, and the MDG is the tip of the spear when it comes to defending that interest.

It is now 2022, and the pandemic has lasted nearly two years. Most of us have felt the emotional toll and fatigue of leading lives that just don’t feel quite like they used to. Nearly two years of constantly shifting targets, of conflicting information about the virus, of mutating variants and travel restrictions and isolation periods and constant questions. We are not used to insecurities in this country—to our resources or food, to our jobs or recreational activities, and certainly not to seeing our own families. Our mental health clinic has had the highest sustained numbers of serious cases in the history of the 460 MDG. It can seem impossible to boost morale when you can’t stand within six feet of other people, let alone see their faces when they’re trying to introduce themselves or hold a conversation. These strictures have largely fallen to the MDG commander and Public Health team to recommend to the Garrison commander, and we base our information off the latest guidance from the CDC and Defense Health Agency (DHA). It may come as a shock, but we here in the MDG are just as tired of masks, social distancing, minimal manning, vaccination requirements, and what feels like a general ban on camaraderie and fun. However, just like our Defenders and the 460 MSG, we are charged with supporting the mission of Space Delta 4, the 566th Intelligence Squadron, 11th and 2nd Space Warning Squadrons, and the Aerospace Data Facility of Colorado, and for the last two years that has meant preserving the health of Buckley Garrison by choosing the safer route.

It is easy to get caught up in the negativity of the pandemic situation, but there have been many positives we can focus on as we reflect. We live in the beautiful state of Colorado, where there is no shortage of open space or sunshine—when the gyms were closed, we could run outside or go hiking, and when we couldn’t dine inside, we could still dine outside without freezing. In the midst of teleworking and pandemic operations, the MDG launched a new electronic health record platform, MHS Genesis, and stood up the Colorado Market within the Military Health System. We have vaccinated over 6,000 people since the release of the vaccine and continue to offer it to individuals from those sectors who still need it. Most importantly, we have had zero COVID-related deaths or hospitalizations on the installation. Though COVID has permanently changed our parameters for measuring health and readiness, we don’t know exactly how it will continue to affect our daily lives and operations. However, it has challenged us to remain vigilant, and shown that the 460th Medical Group is not only resilient, but also adaptable. I am honored to serve beside these men and women, who day in and day out prove their commitment to our mission of providing trusted care to our patients and who inspire me every day to do the same. I hope that they can now also inspire you.