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News | Nov. 30, 2020

Base COVID testing ensures people throughout Central America remain healthy

By Dawn Collazo Joint Planning Support Element - Public Affairs

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, HONDURAS – Juggling in itself is no easy feat, but for medics juggling health-protection requirements in the aftermath of two back-to-back hurricanes all while ensuring the personnel assigned to Soto Cano Air Base remain safe in the midst of operating in a pandemic environment, one can easily assume something would fail.

However, through careful planning led by the COVID response team and strict adherence to guidelines by all on base at Soto Cano, the mitigation of impacts from the virus have remained effective and ensured the small base continues to meet its mission requirements.

“The Combat Support Hospital (CSH) staff provide multiple services, but one of the key things we do is conduct COVID tests, which protect the people both on and off base,” said Lt. Col. Philip O’Brien, Joint Task Force-Bravo deputy surgeon.

The staff of 67 military members provides typical preventative medicine such as basic medical, dental and pharmaceutical care, plus vet, clinic, supply and logistics; however, on top of the normal requirements, the unit is also responsible for leading the effort to mitigate the spread of COVID on base and with personnel supporting missions off base.

Consider this. “We have been helping people in all the countries impacted by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which is significant considering if going in to assist we unknowingly have COVID,” he said.

As a part of the reintegration process for those individuals supporting off-base missions, it is critical testing takes place upon their return to ensure they did not contract the virus while out or spread it to others.

An immediate measure available is the administration of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, considered to be the most accurate available, which detects the virus on the molecular level and is the gold standard for testing. Sometimes the test is conducted by the COVID response team on the flight line.

“We do the tests on the flight line to avoid unnecessary movement of people to minimize contamination,” said Sgt. 1st Class Marjorie Schrader, CSH first sergeant. “We also refrain from bringing possible COVID positive individuals into the clinic as it can impact our ability to provide other essential care,” she said.

As of Nov. 28, 2020, the staff has conducted 1,213 tests, out of which 17 returned positive. Those who test positive go into isolation for 10 days, with checkups on their status two to three times a day, Schrader explained. They can be released on the 10th day as long as they remain asymptomatic because they’re no longer contagious at that point, which is based on CDC guidelines.

Additionally, the COVID response team extends the PCR test to Honduran base employees, known as foreign service nationals (FSNs).

“We test those who work closely with our service members on our surveillance testing to ensure their safety,” Schrader said. “If they become positive, we conduct a thorough trace and escort them as well as their close contacts off base with instructions for strict isolation at home.”

Infected FSNs and the people identified as close contacts are put on a list to not allow access on base until their 10 days have passed without symptoms.

“The testing is one aspect but the safety measures we have in place here such as the social distancing, wearing of masks, and washing hands is working here, and I’m proud of that,” O’Brien said.

"What the virus does hasn't changed, but our behavior around it has. If we do the right things consistently, we can manage it,” he said.

If you’re stationed at Soto Cano and need to contact the COVID response team, reach out to them at DSN 312-449-4724.