AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --
The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic has challenged the world to forge a new normal. For members of the U.S. military, their ability to adapt and innovate has continued to prove itself.
Between Aug. 5 and 13, members of the 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, received training on the Negatively Pressurized Conex-Lite (NPC-L), a tool built specifically for transporting infectious disease patients.
To date, it is the only one of its kind and members with the 379th EAES were among the first to receive a 10-day training on this particular asset.
“It’s a biocontainment unit that’s meant to transport infected patients and with a negative pressure inside of the box, it helps the filtration process of the viral load,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Steven Theohares, 379th EAES commander. “The reason we do this is to limit exposure to anybody in the aircraft outside of the box to include the aircraft itself.”
The NPC-L, a variant of the NPC built earlier in the year, was built smaller and lighter to accommodate isolation transportation for COVID-19 patients on a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
“COVID-19 has changed a lot of things in healthcare for us and throughout the world in the last four or five months,” said Theohares. “The team here has really risen to the occasion. It’s been humbling to watch people step up against adversity and display core values.”
The NPC-L arrived with a Mobile Training Team (MTT) from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Aug. 3 and immediately began training in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
“All of our crews were tasked to do the training,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Stuart, 379th EAES aeromedical evacuation technician. “We need all of us to be ready. We can’t plan which crews will be available when the time comes for a mission on the NPC-L.”
The training included donning and doffing personal protective equipment, patient loading, in-flight scenarios and emergencies, decontamination and electrical configuration. On the final day, the crews put their training to the test by conducting simulated scenarios with the NPC-L on a static C-130.
A critical aspect to any medical training is ensuring the appropriate medical personnel are also trained in the instance of special cases. Since the NPC-L was primarily designed for infectious diseases, one of the two Critical Care Air Transport Teams assigned to the 379th EAES also participated in the training.
“The CCATT who participated was made up of a critical care physician, critical care nurse and respiratory therapist,” said Maj. Nicholas Gumley, 379th EAES director of operations. “They participated in the NPC-L training to understand the logistical uniqueness of the critical care requirements within the platform for transporting patients with COVID-19 and to further develop the aeromedical technician and CCATT cohesion while working within a new, constrained environment.”
According to Theohares, the trainings exceeded leadership expectations. He noted that transporting the NPC-L played a large role in the total success.
“We have Army riggers right next to us, and they have been wanting and willing to participate,” said Theohares. “They helped provide transportation for the NPC-Lite from the flight line to storage in our building while assuring that it was safely moved and protected.”
The NPC-L was designed to remain elevated while not in operation on an aircraft, but when utilized it can fit on a C-130 Hercules or a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.
As the concept of a mobile isolation conex box evolves, technicians and medical providers who trained on the NPC-L have been given the opportunity to provide feedback on how to enhance the future of this product.
“One of the most exciting parts for me is that the NPC-L is still a very new asset,” said Stuart. “Every time the instructors go out and teach new crews, they are taking feedback that may directly impact the design or operations of the NPC-L. To be able to see our feedback implemented and used by many crews to come is pretty rewarding.”
This particular box is now available for use throughout U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, with additional NPC-Ls expected to arrive in theater in 2020.