Joint Base Charleston playing critical role in the global fight against COVID-19

Nation & World

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Last week, Joint Base Charleston (JBC) announced that it has been designated the sole training hub for COVID-19 related aeromedical evacuation (AE) missions.

Days later, on April 10, the Air Force evacuated three COVID-19 positive US contractors out of Afghanistan. Titled REACH 725, it was the first operational COVID-19 AE mission aboard a US Air Force aircraft; the aircraft was a C-17 out of JBC, and the AE crew was managed out of JBC as well.

This is a big deal, not just for Charleston, but on a global scale, as we explore disease mitigation strategies and attempt to navigate a return to some sort of normal. To learn more about the innovative technology and JBC’s role, we spoke with JBC’s Lt. Col Wayne Capps.

To prevent disease spread aboard aircrafts, AE units use the Transport Isolation System (TIS), an aircraft based pathogen containment system. Lt. Col. Capps said that TIS was originally developed after the Ebola outbreak in 2014, but was not needed until now.

TIS has both structural and behavioral elements of containment.

Lt. Col Capps explained that it is a mobile, roll on system that “functions like normal aircraft cargo.” Air Mobility Command (AMC) describes the structural component as a three part system consisting of “one antechamber module (AM) and two isolation modules (IM), each on its own modified 463L aircraft pallet.” The antechamber is where crews “decontaminate and safely remove their personal protective equipment” while the isolation modules are used for patient care. Each section contains a “high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems to contain both airborne and non-airborne pathogens.”

According to Lt. Col Capps, putting the structural components together is a somewhat “labor intensive process” that takes a small crew around 48 hours, but once it is put together it can be “transported on numerous Air Force aircraft,” and connected to the aircrafts’ existing life-support systems.

The Air Force currently has 22 physical TIS kits, which crews are working to put together. The systems will be pre-positioned at JBC and at a base in Germany. According to Lt. Col. Capps, once set up, they can be deployed and reach patients around the globe in a matter of hours.

JBC Training
(Photo by Senior Airman Allison Payne)

TIS kits cannot be used by just any airmen; this is where the behavioral component comes in. AE squadrons are “trained in proper protocols for transporting patients on and off the aircraft” as well as administering in-flight care.

According to AMC, crews have been given a COVID-19 Patient Movement Plan (PMP) which “provides aircrew and support personnel a comprehensive and detailed process by which to transport patients aboard pressurized, military aircraft, including patients afflicted with highly contagious diseases.” All of these protocols are part of the training conducted at JBC.

Lt. Col. Capps said that he doesn’t want to speculate as to the exact reason JBC was designated the sole training hub for TIS AE missions, but he noted some aspects that would certainly make it an attractive choice.

JBC is an airlift hub housing more C-17’s than any other base in the world. There is already an AE mission stationed at JBC, and JBC has the “facilities capable of housing the TIS system.” It also helps that TIS was partially developed at JBC, “and the 315th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at JBC was the unit that helped bring the system online and assisted with initial testing.”

We asked Lt. Col. Capps about the inaugural mission, and possible future missions. He said that the April 10 mission was a success, but he did not have many details. In regards to future missions, he was again careful not to “speculate as to the extent it will be used, because at the moment, we just don’t know.”

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