Wing sustaining operations through COVID-19 pandemic

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Emily Beightol-Deyerle
  • 167th Airlift Wing

As COVID-19 continues to change our daily lives at home and work, the 167th Airlift Wing continues their federal and state missions with a dispersed workforce and commitment to Airmen’s safety.

The wing is maintaining its regularly scheduled overseas flights in support of aeromedical and contingency missions while more than 40 Airmen currently support the State of West Virginia’s COVID-19 response efforts in locations throughout the state.

The wing began transitioning Airmen to telework, especially those with certain medical concerns, in mid-March and within a week only mission essential personnel were working on the base.

Airmen have mobilized to serve in a variety of roles supporting the state’s COVID-19 response including:

  • Conducting medical screening and taking temperatures at the main gate for all individuals requesting access to the base
  • Compiling data on unit members performing official travel or reporting potential exposure
  • Serving as drivers and security guards for sustainment functions
  • Assisting Workforce West Virginia with unemployment claims processing
  • Establishing a supply system activity for personal protective equipment at the wing
  • Augmenting local health departments 

Staff Sgt. Erin Engle, an aerospace medical technician for the 167th Medical Group currently augmenting the Jefferson County Health Department, reported that her team made 177 patient contacts in one week, including one that resulted in alerting Emergency Medical Services on behalf of a COVID-19 positive patient who declined between well checks.

“The patient ended up on a ventilator and is now doing better, however, reports from hospital staff said this patient had hours left to live if we had not intervened,” she said.

Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Cooper, the 167th Medical Group’s public health NCOCIC, said communicable disease prevention is her office’s core function and she is focused on preventing and controlling COVID-19 transmission through education of unit members and advising wing leadership on considerable measures to protect base personnel.

Cooper, who recently completed her technical training in December, said the public health office and other members of the 167th Medical Group, are following local epidemiological investigations, conducting patient interviews and gathering data on unit members who meet specific criteria that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

The 167th MG is responsible for medically clearing all wing Airmen before they transition onto State Active Duty or Title 32 status to support COVID-19 response efforts.

Additionally, the 167th MG began manufacturing cloth masks just days after the Department of Defense issued guidance for individuals on DoD installations to wear cloth face masks when six feet of physical distance cannot be maintained in work centers or public areas.

“We are going to begin self-help operations in the medical group for locally manufactured cloth masks.  The wing is in the process of obtaining cloth masks for issue.  Until then, these ‘home-made’ masks will be used,” said Chief Master Sgt. Tracie Darby, the 167th Medical Group superintendent.

While dedicated to the health and safety of our members, the wing hasn’t lost focus of the airlift mission. Recently, two aircraft transported Disaster Relief Bed-Down Sets from Puerto Rico to the 200th RED HORSE Squadron in Mansfield, Ohio, March 24. The DRBS’s were deployed to Puerto Rico from Ohio after an earthquake in January.

For now, local flying training missions and flight simulator training has been cancelled and will be reassessed every two weeks according to Col. Christopher Sigler, 167th Operations Group commander.

“We are continuing with our contract with the Tanker Airlift Control Center to have crews on active duty to fly missions for the active duty Air Force,” Sigler said.

To avoid virus spread, aircrew receive 14 days to self-quarantine after returning from flying missions and the wing’s C-17 Globemaster III aircraft also undergo quarantine after returning from a mission.

Senior Master Sgt. Bobby Souders, flight chief for the 167th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said aircraft are sealed upon returning from a mission for three days. Maintainers cannot begin aircraft inspections or work discrepancies until the aircraft comes off of the three-day quarantine, he explained. Additionally, an aircraft decontamination team has been established in case an aircraft is suspected have come in contact with the virus.

The 167th Fire Department has maintained its normal staffing level but is limiting the number of off-base calls to incidents that have the highest potential for loss of life, property, or major injury, according to Master Sgt. Chris Taylor, the 167th fire chief. The fire department is limiting the number of personnel responding to off-base calls and only one crew member makes patient contact on the calls.

The firefighters are responsible for self-decontamination after each call and the fire department and fire apparatus are disinfected at least twice daily. 

“If one member of the department is potentially exposed to COVID or is showing any signs or symptoms, there is a chance to have an entire shift or two quarantined,” Taylor said.

Col. Marty Timko, 167th Airlift Wing commander, said he is extremely proud of wing personnel who have demonstrated resilience and determination.

“Many shortfalls are abundantly apparent in our processes and infrastructure to pivot and suddenly execute our mission remotely.  However, the 167th Airlift Wing is still making it happen, and both the state and nation are grateful for your efforts,” he said.