Dover AFB instrumental in COVID-19 decontamination

Dover Air Force Base aeromedical evacuation team member Senior Master Sgt. Mike Malone inside one of the the transportation isolation system units explaining how the air is filtered to prevent contamination to flight crew members. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh.

DOVER — The dangerous COVID-19 virus has landed at Dover Air Force Base, but airmen are quite equipped to handle it.

Dover AFB has had a pair of Transport Isolation Systems (TIS) at its disposal since April 30 aboard a C-17 Globemaster parked on its flight line, along with trained medical airmen who are receiving and treating COVID patients coming into the base from around the globe.

The Air Force has designated Dover AFB as the East Coast hub for TIS decontamination in the United States, given its strategic location, assets and capabilities. Airmen are supporting and decontaminating TIS units whose aircrews are conducting COVID-19 positive patient transport missions from Africa, Europe and the Middle East to the U.S.

Dover AFB aeromedical evacuation team members with the Transportation Isolation System (TIS) installed inside the cargo area of a C-17 Globemaster III.. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh.

The team is composed of members of six different units from across the country.

“The airmen and infrastructure of Dover AFB are vital to the TIS mission,” said Col. Matthew Jones, 436th Airlift Wing commander, in a statement. “This is a total force effort between active-duty, reservists and civilians. This team stands united against this shared threat, and we remain ready to deliver when called upon.”

So far, the Air Force has been involved with 16 total missions in bringing COVID-19 patients back to the United States, with three of the mercy flights involving Dover.

A C-17 Globemaster III on the ramp at Dover AFB equipped with a Transportation Isolation System module (TIS) making it possible to relocate COVID-19 positive patients without exposing members of the flight crew. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh.

“Our role here (at Dover) is not actually flying the missions,” said Senior Master Sgt. Mike Malone. “Our role here is we’re the East Coast hub for decontamination. We have two of these (TIS units) staged here so if a crew comes in, they drop of their patients somewhere in the states. The plane will come back through here and we’ll clean it and put it back together again so it can be deployed back to where it needs to be utilized.”

The TIS are infectious disease containment units designed to minimize risk to aircrew members, medical attendants and the airframe, allowing in-flight medical care for patients being transported.

The first transport of COVID-19 patients by Air Mobility Command (AMC) originated at Ramstein Air Base in Germany as airmen conducted the first operational use of the Transport Isolation System to perform an aeromedical evacuation of three U.S. government contractors from Afghanistan to Germany on April 10.

AMC’s Patient Movement Plan enabled identification, tasking and employment of the specialized, TIS-trained crew to ensure safe delivery of the Americans to higher-level care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Cpt. Robert Burkhardt-Dowd said dealing with COVID-19 patients inside the TIS was not business as usual at first.

“I’d say there’s initially a little bit of uncertainty because we’re operating in kind of unknown waters,” Capt. Burkhardt-Dowd said. “Our first medical crew director was a reservist who was an ER doctor in New York. He’s someone who’s very much on the front lines battling day in and day out and he really help put our mind at ease with how this is going and helped put a little more faith in this system in terms of its functionality.

“You are a little hesitant to remove the mask to begin with, but once you see a New York ER doctor tell you that it’s safe and he’s been there and done that, then it’s a lot more reassuring.”

The TIS units actually emerged as a result of mobility requirements identified during Operation United Assistance in support of the Ebola outbreak in 2014. This system was designed to provide in-flight medical care while containing any infectious disease, minimizing the risk to aircrew, medical attendants and the airframe.

The TIS units are set up like beds on a military ambulatory bus would be – only some of these beds fly more than 30,000 feet in the sky. There are pressure chambers and complex air filtration measures designed to keep the crew safe while dealing with the patients.

“We have two TIS modules here, because that is a standard configuration [in an aircraft],” said Maj. Mark Dellinger, 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron training flight commander. “Each has the capability of carrying seven patients.”

Medical personnel assigned to the TIS mission receive multi-day training, including familiarization with the system, patient loading/unloading procedures, donning and doffing personal protective equipment, simulated in-flight patient care and infection control procedures.

Since that first COVID flight from Ramstein Air Base more than 80 coronavirus patients have been transported using the TIS system.

Spread out at air bases around the world, Air Mobility Command currently has 22 TIS units available for use.

While the TIS units are transferable from aircraft to aircraft, Cpt. Burkhardt-Dowd said they usually stay on one specific C-17.

“They’re capable of (going from plane to plane) but that’s not usually how it’s run,” he said. “Usually once they’re on here, the process to set them up and hook them up is a little more involved and then that way we can also contain any issues due to decontamination on the same plane as well.”

Health protection policies have been established at Dover AFB in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Defense, in addition to local and state public health assessments of the evolving situation.

“The health and safety of our warfighters is paramount,” said Capt. Travis Parrott, a 3rd Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot and stage representative for Dover AFB TIS decontamination operations. “The TIS enables the Department of Defense to transport patients afflicted with or suspected of an infectious disease like COVID-19 from overseas to the United States, providing for an expedient recovery of its personnel, as well as preventing the spread of COVID-19 to aircrews.”

As part of the response to COVID-19, the TIS mission at Dover AFB will continue for as long as required.

“With this mission, Dover AFB is ensuring not only the safety of our mobility Airmen, but also the readiness of our military as a whole,” said Maj. Gen. Sam Barrett, 18th Air Force commander, in a statement. “I am grateful for all the hardworking Dover airmen who are helping keep our entire force healthy during the battle against COVID-19.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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