WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) —
Since early March 2020, approximately 130,000 COVID-19 samples have been tested and processed at the Air Force’s sole epidemiology reference laboratory housed in the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.
This number equates to about 17% of all samples of COVID-19 that have been tested across the Department of Defense. And as the demand fluctuated and continues, laboratory personnel remain agile.
“Our Epi Lab team sustains tremendous resilience and commitment as they now work seven days per week with the operational capability to process a little over 2,000 samples of COVID-19 per day,” explained Brig. Gen. Jeannine Ryder, 711th Human Performance Wing commander. “It is an incredible testament to their flexibility and innovation to meet this crucial requirement.”
The epidemiology reference laboratory, commonly referred to as “USAFSAM’s Epi Lab,” is part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing. As the Air Force’s sole clinical reference laboratory, it was authorized by the Defense Health Agency to test samples from DOD beneficiaries for COVID-19 when the epidemic began. The lab received its first test kit from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shortly after. Then within days, the CDC designated COVID-19 as a pandemic and a national emergency.
“The Epi Lab personnel are trained and prepared for this type of outbreak, but it’s one of those things we hope never happens,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Lambert, the Epidemiology Laboratory division chief. “But with COVID-19, we continue to learn as we go with this novel virus, creating contingency plans and making adjustments to staffing, hours, various lab protocols and more.”
Lambert explained that while the lab increased its staffing from about 100 to 125, not all of those lab technicians are tending to the COVID-19 samples.
“We still have to perform our normal day-to-day mission—outside of COVID-19,” he said. “Other infectious disease samples continue to come in from all over the world, and we test and process those too. For example, our team also tests and processes influenza samples, and we contribute our data to the CDC’s Influenza Surveillance Program as they develop the annual flu vaccine. So as we enter flu season, we will have to remain agile and make additional changes to meet demand.”
Lambert stated, however, that the Epi Lab is not participating in COVID-19 vaccine development, or any vaccine for that matter.
In April, Col. Theresa Goodman, USAFSAM commander, praised the rapid response of the Epi Lab as they quickly met what everyone hoped would be a short-term need for the Air Force. But now that the lab has been operating in such capacity for more than six months, short-term changes have stretched into a more long-term, sustainable mission as the pandemic continues.
“As we realized the COVID-19 marathon we were in, the entire force of AFRL stood up to support,” Goodman explained. “When we needed supplies, the team worked to procure them and sustain them. When we needed more technicians to help with testing and processing, this team explored every possible avenue to hire them. This team stops at nothing to not only answer the call and complete the mission, but to ensure its personnel are taken care of too. I couldn’t be more proud of these COVID-19 front-line medics and the support provided by AFRL.”
USAFSAM’s Epi Lab has been in operation for approximately 30 years, and therefore has a long history of testing and identifying various infectious respiratory diseases, including those that occur on a regular basis like influenza, as well as those new viruses that become a public health issue and spread globally — like Ebola. As such, the team works closely with the CDC and other agencies.