FORT LEE, Va. – The continuing COVID-19 global health crisis has changed everyone’s way of life, with many in our community struggling with the constant fear of getting sick and the anxiety of not knowing how long they’ll have to remain sheltered at home.
Kenner Army Health Clinic clearly understands the impact of this emergency and is working hard to fulfill its vital role in virus prevention, education and healing.
Among the many military health community superheroes responding to this crisis, the Kenner Public Health Department has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response from the start. This dynamic group of experts promote health and well-being and prevent disease, disability and death. They help prepare troops for deployment, conduct hygiene inspections, oversee disease prevention programs, provide advice, conduct surveys and testing, and much more.
The department consists of four sections: Army Public Health Nurses; Environmental Health; Occupational Health; and Industrial Hygiene. They all play an instrumental role in this fight against COVID-19.
The first point of care begins with a patient’s ability to contact the Kenner COVID-19 hotline at 1-866-533-5424, option 4, which is manned 24 hours a day. Deputy to the Commander for Nursing, Lt. Col Tameka D. Bowser volunteered to “be the voice” of this busy and essential service.
“I knew the community would have a lot of questions and concerns about the virus, their personal health and access to testing,” Bowser noted. “I view the hotline as the perfect resource from which patients could find answers easily.”
Since the middle of March, she has received more than 600 calls and has developed a routine for calmly answering questions and following the screening procedures that help determine whether the community member has been potentially exposed to the virus.
“With the vast majority of calls, I review symptoms to determine if COVID-19 testing is warranted under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance,” Bowser said. “I also answer a lot of questions on who should be quarantined or isolated based on the screening results.”
She noted, the most common symptoms have been fever, chills, body-ache, cough, shortness of breath, chest pressure, headache and sore throat; however, the CDC also lists vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain as potential signs of exposure.
“Sometimes, patients present with very mild symptoms that do not qualify for testing or quarantine, but warrant a closer look in a day or two. The Public Health team follows up with the rest.”
Chief of Preventive Medicine and Army Public Health Nursing, Maj. Jasmin Gregory also has taken a lead role in the “fight to flatten the curve.” She heads the team of subject matter experts in the areas of promoting healthy behaviors, tracking the disease, screening patients and training. They have served as advisors to leaders and have been behind the scenes at installation and Kenner town halls since the beginning.
“COVID 19 is a novel virus, meaning we don’t know too much about it and, collectively, are still learning,” Gregory said. “As the Chief of Public Health, I have daily discussions with our partners at Crater Health District, Army Public Health Command, and the Defense Health Agency. We work hard to stay abreast on the newest guidance issued by the CDC and track trends through Virginia and the U.S. We consult daily with the installation leadership on trends, positive cases and testing capabilities to ensure informed decisions are made. We are working 24/7 to ensure Soldiers and beneficiaries are safe.”
The APHN team has been suiting up to administer COVID-19 testing as well. More about that part of the mission can be read in the article published last week at www.fortleetraveller.com.
Stephen Pinkerton, Kenner’s Public Health Emergency officer, has been collecting testing swabs daily since the beginning of the outbreak. Patients remain in their vehicles, away from other beneficiaries, when this level of screening is performed. Samples have been sent off to LabCorp where the turnaround time has been up to 10 days. With the clinic’s new testing system, the Kenner Laboratory will able to run 14-16 tests daily with an average one-hour turnaround. As noted in the Traveller article, that ability is dependent on the availability of required supplies.
If a COVID-19 test comes back positive, the Contact Tracing Team springs into action. Their job is to identify and reach out to the individuals who have been close to the person confirmed to be carrying the virus. Those contacts are quarantined and monitored. If any of them become positive, the process is repeated.
“Actually, this has been a fundamental procedure of public health for many years of infectious disease,” Gregory observed. “The key component is the collection of reliable trace history data. A lot of information is collected through the contact tracing tool (available on the Kenner website, kenner.nrmc.amedd.army.mil) that those secondary individuals should fill out to the fullest extent possible.
“We need them to fill out this form in its entirety and get it back to us as soon as possible,” she re-emphasized. “Then we have our contact tracing team go through it with the community member line-by-line so we can identify those personnel who could be at risk.”
Another vital contributor to the department’s COVID-19 response team is Occupational Health. Their role is to assess whether a patient is well enough to be released from quarantine and return to work.
Dr. Oluwaronke Awosika is the primary Occupational Medicine provider and she helps the team deliver guidelines for employee safety. Observation, knowledge of current trends, and research of existing guidance are tools of their trade.
“One thing I’ve noticed is how unpredictable this virus is, including how it presents in people,” Awosika said. “Unlike the flu, symptoms such as cough, fatigue and shortness of breath seem to persist for longer than normal.
“We’re also witnessing how transparency and accuracy of disseminated information is essential when dealing with a crisis. I believe the biggest obstacle from an occupational health perspective is misinformation. Thus, I find that staying informed myself and remaining calm is the best way to proceed.”
Another section of the Public Health Department is Industrial Hygiene, which has been extra busy training and fitting personnel for the N-95 masks that are used during testing and laboratory processing. N95 respirators are the PPE most often used to control exposures to infections with a high airborne transmission rate. The effectiveness of the equipment is highly dependent upon proper fit and use.
Finally, rounding out the PHD’s roster is Environmental Health, a team comprised of three Soldiers and two civilians. They are helping COVID-19 operations by conducting inspections of barracks and food service facilities, providing food service and sanitation instruction, and training “clean-teams” that would play an essential recovery role if COVID-19 ever gains a foothold at Fort Lee.
The noncommissioned officer in charge of the section, Staff Sgt. Torrey Canady, said they’re showing the clean teams how to wear proper protective equipment, make an effective disinfectant solution, and what areas require more attention than others.
“We instruct teams on how to discard waste, and procedures to deliver food to quarantined personnel,” Canady explained. “Lastly, we make sure employees are using approved disinfectants, and that they are taking precautionary measures to prevent themselves from exposure if they’re unaware of any CDC updates.”
Kenner enthusiastically joins the nation in expressing deep appreciation for the health care providers on the frontline of this battle against COVID-19. In our community, the Public Health Department is among those “superheroes in scrubs” doing everything in their ability to assure everyone stays safe and healthy.