Army health study on COVID-19

Amy Adler, senior scientist at the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, discusses the results of an online study in which more than 20,000 Soldiers gauged the Army’s response to behavioral and public health efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oct. 13 presentation was part of the AUSA annual expo in the nation’s capital.

WASHINGTON – The Army plans to expand an online study that surveyed over 20,000 Soldiers in May to gauge its response to behavioral and public health efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of a collaboration between the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and Army Public Health Center, the initial study helped identify rates of potential behavioral health issues and whether Soldiers sought care for them.

“We joined forces in sharing our expertise and were able to move quickly to create an online survey tool that reached thousands of Soldiers,” elaborated Amy Adler, senior scientist in WRAIR’s Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

The study also measured current public health guidance on COVID-19 and if it needed to be improved, as well as leadership behaviors and how the virus impacted families and relationships. Active-duty Soldiers assigned to I Corps and units in South Korea and Europe participated in it.

A behavioral health advisory team plans to work with these locations again as well as other areas that have been vulnerable to COVID-19 in the next phase of the study, a timeline for which has yet to be determined.

“The pandemic has created significant disruption to everyday life,” acknowledged Phillip Quartana, a research psychologist at WRAIR. “The military is not immune to these disruptions.”

Both Quartana and Adler spoke Oct. 13 during a virtual event at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition in the nation’s capital.

Once the pandemic hit, the Army launched several safety measures to stop the spread so units could continue to train and conduct operations around the world. The study – prompted by the unprecedented challenges and uncertainties of the crisis – identified a number of consistently reported stressors from Soldiers. They included limited time with friends and family; the inability to participate in social engagements; changing guidance; someone close contracting the virus; and the potential impact on unit readiness, Quartana said.

The study also examined whether those fears and concerns were linked to a potential behavioral health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Researchers observed that positive screening rates for those issues were generally the same as recent samples taken before the pandemic, suggesting they had not risen significantly.

The study, however, found that Soldiers who reported the most concerns were more likely to screen positive for a behavioral health difficultly. For instance, those with the highest levels of COVID-19 fears and concerns were four times more likely to screen positive for anxiety or depression than those at the lowest levels, he said.

It also discovered areas for improvement as many Soldiers reported they rarely stayed home, avoided crowded places or social gatherings, or monitored themselves for symptoms.

Furthermore, Soldiers identified additional details they wanted to learn about the virus, such as travel guidance and regulations, facts and statistics related to its spread, protection measures, how to maintain mission readiness, and daily life coping and stress management.

“This information is extremely valuable to help us shore up information gaps reported by Soldiers by making recommendations for Army public health strategic communications, both globally and locally,” Quartana said.

The study also asked Soldiers how their leaders promoted health and adjustment during the pandemic. Results revealed that those who reported high levels of leadership with an active approach to prevent COVID-19 were less likely to report a behavioral health problem.

“These results do suggest that besides being a generally good leader, those who engage in COVID-19 leadership behaviors may be able to boost the health and wellbeing of their units,” Adler said.

Based on these findings and from other recent studies, WRAIR was able to develop a series of two-page pamphlets (www.wrair.army.mil/fact-sheets) that provide more details on COVID-19 leadership, mindfulness and stress mitigation, and sleep management.

Additional information on COVID-19 safety measures can be found on the Army Public Health Center website, phc.amedd.army.mil.