Maryland military members instrumental in COVID pandemic – Capital Gazette

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Gov. Larry Hogan had an announcement for the state of Maryland.

The first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, what was then a novel coronavirus, were detected in Maryland.

Earlier that day, Hogan called an emergency cabinet meeting. COVID-19 was in the state. He needed the Maryland National Guard.

It’s been a year since COVID-19 cases first appeared in the state and Anne Arundel County. Across Maryland, military units — from the Maryland National Guard to the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command — started responding to the health crisis, finding ways to support testing, treatment, and ultimately, vaccination.

Hogan activated the Maryland National Guard, which has taken on various missions throughout the pandemic. It started with helping to deliver food to children who usually received free and reduced meals at school, said Brig. Gen. Adam Flasch, director of the Joint Staff.

Then the guard was called in to support testing, helping set up mass testing sites run through the state.

Flasch said that the guard has facilitated 37,000 tests, which breaks down to about 900 swabs a day at the sites.

But while the National Guard played a supporting role, Flasch said the guard is just a part of a much larger team composed of groups like the Maryland Department of Health.

The Maryland National Guard is unique because it has military training while its members also function as civilians, with jobs outside of their service, Flasch said. That combination has served the guard throughout the pandemic, with some of its Army and Air Force guardsmen holding degrees or experience in epidemiology.

But it also meant that when Hogan activated the guard, those on active status had to drop their civilian lives and show up to assist in responding to a new disease. A year ago, little was known about the disease. There were experimental treatments, and a vaccine was not yet on the horizon.

But the guardsmen showed up, Flasch said, despite the risk.

“So that’s real courage,” he said. “I mean, not knowing what you’re gonna face and showing up anyways, it’s heartwarming. And for 31 years, I’ve been doing this, and I’m always humbled by the quality and the commitment of our soldiers and airmen.”

Helping service members near and far

About an hour away from Flasch’s office at Camp Fretterd near Reisterstown is Fort Detrick, home to several laboratories and the headquarters of the United States Army Medical Research and Development Command.

Maryland has several military installations throughout the state. Some focus on chemistry. Others like Fort George G. Meade focus on cyber and national security. But at Fort Detrick in Frederick, the missions usually deal with biology and medicine.

Which is why it is not surprising the Army command had several units that turned its attention to COVID-19. In many cases, that focus was on protecting service members from the disease.

But for Tyler Bennett, that meant focusing on ventilators. In the early days of the pandemic, ventilator supplies were low.

Bennett, a project manager for Warfighter Deployed Medical Systems Project Management Office, led a team that helped supply ventilators to hospitals around the country.

Bennett worked with the supply chain, trying to find the parts needed for the ventilators. One of the biggest challenges he and his team faced was that many of the parts he needed were manufactured outside of the United States. Travel restrictions made getting those parts difficult, he said.

Bennett helped coordinate the ventilator supply chain for about a month, helping deploy 50,000-60,000 ventilators, he said.

By the time he left, the team was deploying about 1,000 ventilators a day, he said.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), on Fort Detrick, serves as a Department of Defense laboratory that can confirm positive cases of SARS-CoV-2 tests, USAMRIID commander Col. E. Darrin Cox said in an email.

The laboratory also worked on multiple tests for identifying COVID-19 positive samples while developing methods for determining the antibody levels needed for protection.

At the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, researchers worked on amping up testing, as well as developing methods to determine when a service member was no longer sick or track an asymptomatic case, according to its website.

Both USAMRIID and Walter Reed also worked on therapies for treating COVID-19. USAMRIID, which is known for its animal models for testing, helped test the compound that was later developed into remdesivir, then for use against Ebola.

USAMRIID scientists also tested monoclonal antibodies and assisted in the early research on convalescent plasma as potential treatments for COVID-19, Cox said.

When remdesivir was first introduced as a potential treatment for COVID-19, it was considered an investigational drug, said Lt. Col. Sandi Parriott, director for Health Force Protection, a part of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Activity.

Remdesivir was being used as an experimental treatment for both civilians and service members in the pandemic’s early days, Parriott said.

There were no connections between the Health and Human Services and Parriott’s team both choosing remdesivir, Parriott said. They just both had the same good idea.

Parriott’s team was responsible for identifying investigational treatments for diseases like COVID-19 to treat service members worldwide, as well as beneficiaries and military retirees, if they are treated in a military health system.

In 21 days, Parriott’s team was able to identify, process and send out the first treatment of remdesivir to service members in Germany, she said. The team sent remdesivir to 26 sites in and out of the continental United States over the next few months and treated 40 patients with that protocol. Of the 40, 39 patients were able to go home, she said.

The Department of Defense selected Parriott’s team to distribute, track and store its supply of remdesivir, and through that effort, 1,951 service members were treated.

Remdesivir received Food and Drug Administration licensing in September, which meant it no longer fell under Parriott’s team’s mission. Instead, they are looking at other investigational treatments.

Overall, since the pandemic started, the team has helped provide treatments for more than 2,000 patients worldwide, including on aircraft carriers.

Her team helped provided the USS Nimitz with the plasma, the first aircraft carrier to receive it, and put the remdesivir, when it was still under emergency use authorization, on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, she said.

That’s the Navy side, she said. They also helped provide treatment protocols to Air Force and Army locations, as well.

USAMRIID and Walter Reed also turned attention to the efforts underway to create vaccines. Walter Reed scientists are working on a vaccine that used nanoparticles to introduce part of the spike protein that projects from the coronavirus’ main body to a person’s immune system. The spike protein is what gives the coronavirus its crown shape, which is why the virus type is called coronavirus.

USAMRIID studied the best-suited animals for testing, including the Syrian hamster, and recommended the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed use them to develop vaccines, tests and treatment for COVID-19.

In January, the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine started coming to the state. The first doses were supplied by Moderna, followed by Pfizer and, most recently, the one-shot Johnson and Johnson.

At the behest of Hogan, the Maryland National Guard set up mobile vaccination teams to help local health departments, Flasch said. Guardsmen have vaccinated about 5% of Marylanders who have received the vaccine so far. That breaks down to about 60,000 Marylanders.

The goal is to do 6,000 shots per day at each site, if the vaccine supply is available, he said.

“I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture,” he said. “We’ve got a long road ahead of us. But I will tell you, the leadership displayed at the county executive level, at the governor level, and everyone’s pushing hard, and everyone wants it now. And we should accept nothing less than that.”

While many in the state can get the vaccine at one of the mass vaccination sites or other vaccine providers, Department of Defense employees may get the vaccine through their work.

Army MSG. Carolyn Lange, is an LPN and volunteer COVID-19 vaccine administrator at Fort Meade, Friday, March 5, 2021

Army MSG. Carolyn Lange, is an LPN and volunteer COVID-19 vaccine administrator at Fort Meade, Friday, March 5, 2021 (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

The number of vaccines done at McGill depends on the supply of vaccines from the Department of Defense, but last Friday, vaccine administrators delivered more than 500 shots, said Master Sgt. Carolyn Lange, a licensed practical nurse currently assigned to health care recruiting for the Army.

Lange, as well as her husband, volunteered to give vaccines, she said. It was her way of being able to contribute to ending the pandemic.

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Right now, at the McGill Training Center, DOD employees receive the Moderna vaccination, which means they need two doses.

It is not much different than giving out the flu vaccine, Lange said. She cleans the vial, draws the vaccine into the syringe, and then gives it. The vaccine is intramuscular.

She has also received both doses of the vaccine, she said.

Lange joined the Army to be a nurse, she said. She has friends who are intensive care unit nurses, working with COVID-19 patients and experiencing burnout from responding to the pandemic over the past year.

Helping to vaccinate Fort Meade employees and, in some cases, their beneficiaries is the “tiniest drop in the bucket” she can do, Lange said.

“We’ve been doing this for a year,” she said. “Now, I’d like to get the world back to normal. So whatever I can do to do my part. I don’t want to be looking back 10 years from now and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was a nurse during the COVID pandemic, but I didn’t do anything.’”

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