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Public Health Emergency Officers balance risk and mission during crisis

Military personnel packing sanitizing products Airmen work together to create hand sanitizer at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, April 6, 2020. The Airman were able to gather all of the hand sanitizer ingredients from locations on base and in the local community. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Owsianka)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va.—The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the role of Air Force public health emergency officers to the forefront.

PHEOs are military treatment facility staff who are designated to serve as a resource to help guide installation commanders during a large scale public health incident. They provide expertise and recommendations to base leadership on how to respond, mitigate, and control the incident as well as coordinate information and response activities with local community health officials.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is exactly why we have PHEOs,” said Col. Jim Poel, chief, Public Health Branch, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “This pandemic pushed us well past table-top exercises with installation and local health department personnel. Many people at the installation level are contributing to pandemic mitigation efforts. The PHEO is critical to help provide clarity and give advice about the threat and how to respond, but this is truly an all-hands on deck event.”

PHEOs undergo extensive training, starting with basic public health emergency management courses. Additional courses are taken within two years of their assignment with specific casualty courses, and sustainment courses taken throughout their role as a PHEO.

“The PHEO role is an additional duty,” said Poel. “The primary and alternate PHEOs are nominated by the military treatment facility commander and appointed by the installation commander.”

PHEOs serve multiple roles. They are often the MTF’s Chief of Aerospace Medicine or the senior Public Health Officer. But with COVID-19, PHEO responsibilities have expanded. Capt. Sean Lee, a PHEO with the 7th Medical Group, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, is a good example of how this expanded role was critical to his installation leadership during the crisis.

“My roles and responsibilities as base PHEO really grew during the pandemic,” said Lee. “COVID-19 is not just a public health or medical group issue. It touches every facet of the wing, so I’ve been working with many more agencies and squadrons than normal. Even with good planning, there were unprecedented personnel and logistics issues that required informed risk assessments about how to safely proceed.”

The Dyess PHEOs established three areas of pandemic response. The first was to maintain readiness and support contingency operations that arise. The second was to minimize the risk of the virus’ spread. The third was to communicate with the community.

“Thanks to our PHEO, we sustained our mission of delivering airpower with B-1s and C-130s even in the midst of a pandemic,” said Col. Jose "Ed” Sumangil, 7th Bomb Wing commander, Dyess Air Force Base. “These efforts helped us manage risk and minimize the spread to our Airmen, our family members, and to the community.”

From the start of the pandemic, Lee coordinated COVID-19 communications between Dyess and the neighboring Abilene, Texas, community. As Lee explains, building rapport with the community helped the base’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“We are lucky to be situated in Abilene, which is a relatively small community with a stand-alone public health department,” explained Lee. “We coordinated with them every step of the way and were involved in each other’s planning, exercises, and response. We relied on Abilene for a lot of data and contact tracing, which allowed us to slow the spread of infection in a fast, efficient, and systematic way.”

“Ninety percent of our base personnel live in the community, so whatever they do affects us and vice versa,” explained Sumangil, “It takes an experienced officer to understand that and [Lee] did a great job of opening that dialogue.”

PHEOs play a critical role in keeping Airmen safe while ensuring the mission continues amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This involves strategic effort and coordination across the base and surrounding communities.

“PHEOs build rapport in many ways,” explained Poel. “They help their commanders with health challenges before there’s a crisis, are knowledgeable of evidence-based, best practices and unknowns concerning the threat, and are able to provide guidance to keep Airmen safe while maintaining the operational mission.”

The Dyes commanders, PHEOs and the local community health officials collectively developed extensive strategic plans, communications and response activities to cohesively mobilize against COVID-19.

“What an unprecedented time for a country,” Sumangil said, praising the “Public health team for keeping it together and helping the leaders on this base to communicate with this community and sustain the mission.”

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