COVID-19 Testing as an Army Medical Officer

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Lieutenant Brad Clark (at right) with COVID-19 testing team members

Written by U.S. Army Lieutenant Brad Clark, a UVM Master’s Degree in Medical Science student

As a medical service officer in the New Hampshire National Guard, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be called up to help combat the COVID-19 threat. In those early days of the pandemic, there were many needs in my home state, whether it was setting up alternative care sites, delivering PPE to nursing homes, or assembling food care packages for families. Although I’ve been pursuing a master’s of medical science degree at UVM and anticipate graduating in the summer of 2021, I knew I’d be ready to serve.

The time came. My phone rang at 9 p.m. on a Sunday from a colleague asking if I would be the Incident Commander of one of the COVID-19 testing sites being established in New Hampshire. Without hesitation, I left the comfort and safety of solitude at home, packed my bags and stepped into the unknown.

Standing in an April snowstorm, I was surrounded by the top leaders of the town’s municipals: police, fire, and EMS chiefs, the superintendent of schools, and a public health coordinator. Behind stood my soldiers awaiting orders; all eyes were on me as the Incident Commander. Just hours before, I was given the mission, a team, and equipment to hunker down for an unknown length of time to conduct COVID-19 testing for the small New Hampshire town. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to take on such a task. Although as an Army officer I was part of a short deployment to Hungary to assist managing a medical field station for the 197 Field Artillery Brigade, this time I was in charge. I was responsible for the safety and welfare of these soldiers, and the burden weighed on me as I knew it would test my own resiliency.

But as the meeting commenced, an overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me as each town leader selflessly offered resources to support our mission; the town police offered a trailer with a generator to stay warm, the public health coordinator organized our PPE disposal pickup with a local hospital, and local restaurants offered to feed us. The pandemic opened my eyes to what it means to be part of a community. I was amazed at how much support a small town was willing to offer my team because we all had a common goal in mind. In times of chaos and uncertainty, we have to remember to connect and face challenges together.

As of this writing, I continue to manage the day-to-day operations of one of the testing sites with more than 1,200 tests conducted at our site alone. Our testing site can be thought of a McDonald’s drive-thru; patients drive to our registration tent and within minutes they receive a “delightful” nasopharyngeal swab, and they’re on their way! A separate team stationed at a different site calls patients with their lab results and give further instructions for quarantine measures for those tested positive. The process is surprisingly seamless and I truly believe it’s had a huge impact on the community seeing soldiers take on such a challenge. Each encounter I’ve had with patients has been filled with gratitude and hope that we can restore a sense of normalcy in our lives.

This experience has only left me wanting to understand more as an aspiring physician. What lies beneath the surface and how can these viruses make such an impact on a global scale? I hope to use the foundational science skills I’ve learned through the master’s program at UVM as a medical student and eventually, as a physician. What became clear to me through this experience is together we can accomplish so much. Better is possible.

 

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