Air Force Conducts Mass COVID-19 Test: Air Force Airman First-Class Marcus Bullock

Joint Base Langley-Eustis conducted mass rapid oral fluid COVID-19 testing of roughly 2% of its population.

About 7,800 joint active duty personnel were tested June 3-5.

The 633rd Medical Group, McDonald Army Health Center and the Air Combat Command Surgeon General’s office were chosen to pilot this novel oral swab coronavirus test from Curative Inc., anticipated to aid operational readiness while striving to protect service members during the pandemic, officials said.

“The installation was chosen for a multitude of reasons, as we have a proven history of providing rapid response capability in support of [Defense Department] objectives,” Air Force Col. Clint Ross, the installation commander, said. “Our close proximity to other military installations and the lab evaluating the test results, overall population size and supportive leadership made us a prime candidate.”

The new testing method — swabbing the inside of the patient’s mouth to gather oral fluids — is far less invasive than previous methods of COVID-19 testing which require inserting a cotton swab through the nasal passage.

“This testing method does not require a health care provider to administer the test itself,” Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Sharon Bannister, the command surgeon for Air Combat Command, said. “It’s a much simpler method that allows us to test a greater number of people in a shorter period of time while preserving our masks, glove and gowns for patient care.”

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Test results are available to medical professionals within two to three days. Those tested are able to check their personal results via their TRICARE patient portal system about seven days later.

“Think about the large number of people we send downrange, putting them on planes and living in tight quarters close to one another,” Bannister said. “This is a game changer for us and helps ensure our readiness by utilizing tests prior to deployment to minimize the risk of a large-scale outbreak downrange.”

Coordination was extensive and swift, as medical staff were tasked with implementing this new program with about three days’ notice.

“Upon notification, rapid planning and collaboration began across Langley and Fort Eustis, and [soon] began processing personnel,” Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Polito III, the clinical laboratory flight commander and installation project lead, said. “Our incredible teams demonstrated the ability to quickly scale and administer COVID-19 testing of a large military population to ensure health, safety and readiness of airmen and soldiers.”

The base’s efforts align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing recommendations for mass screening protocols and will also help the community understand the prevalence of asymptomatic cases in this sample population, officials said.

“We know there’s a certain percentage of people walking around showing no symptoms and possibly spreading the disease,” Bannister said. “If we can identify some of these asymptomatic positive cases, we can notify and test their close contacts to minimize the spread of COVID and further flatten the curve.”

The Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office and Langley-Eustis leadership, in coordination with the Defense Health Agency and the Defense Department’s COVID-19 Task Force, managed this effort.

“We’re all in,” Ross said. “The lessons learned from the exercise will be a valuable operational readiness tool and help inform future testing capabilities.”

(Air Force Airman 1st Class Marcus Bullock is assigned to Joint Base Langley-Eustis.)

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