FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Even as the U.S. health system faces a shortage of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Force Medical Service is equipped to protect patients and providers.
The Air Force maintains stockpiles of medical PPE at each military treatment facility.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved PPE, like face masks, gowns, face shields and gloves, are critical to minimize the spread of COVID-19 amongst health care workers and patients.
“We don’t anticipate any PPE shortfalls,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Indomenico, chief, Medical Logistics Procurement Support, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “Our prepositioned pandemic PPE assets allow us to make up for constraints in the commercial supply chain and continue to safely provide care.”
The Air Force is also extending the safe use of its PPE supply, notably N95 masks. Military Treatment Facilities are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on extended-use and reuse of PPE. This includes recommendations for storing masks between uses, safe-handling information, and proper inspection of the masks before re-donning them.
Extending PPE supplies also means reducing demand. This means that MTFs are reassessing how to provide access to care.
“Health care teams are rethinking some of our face-to-face appointments,” said Lt. Col. Michelle Anton, Air Force Medical Home Element Chief, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “Sometimes, we reduce demand simply by limiting non-essential contact between staff and patients through telehealth or drive-up clinics.”
As part of the Military Health System, Air Force Medicine is part of a joint effort to manage PPE.
“We are in a good place now and going forward,” said Indomenico. “We are balancing our assets across the system so when one facility has a surge in PPE use, we share from another facility with less demand. Our partnership with the other services and the Defense Health Agency’s medical logistics office enhances our ability to coordinate our inventory.”
The Department of Defense requires that everyone on a DoD installation use cloth face coverings when not able to maintain a safe six-foot distance in public areas or work centers. DoD personnel are further encouraged to wear cloth face coverings in all public settings when physical distancing is difficult. In these situations, non-medical PPE like cloth masks are recommended. These items often can be safely reused with a bit of caution and care.
“Per CDC recommendations, laundering in a washing machine is sufficient to safely reuse a face covering,” said Mr. Christopher Florez, the Air Force Surgeon General infection prevention consultant. “When it needs to be washed depends on how often it’s used, but if it gets wet or visibly soiled, definitely wash it.”
Florez also noted that any time face coverings tear, or the straps become too loose to snuggly fit over the nose and mouth, it is time to replace them entirely.
Effectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic takes everyone pulling together. Health care workers are on the frontlines, and need every resource possible. Despite the Air Force’s robust stockpile, it is still important to preserve PPE supplies.
“We just don’t know how long this pandemic will last,” said Florez. “Save the N95 masks and other medical PPE for medical providers. Keep yourself safe with face coverings and physical distancing when you are out in public, and you will be doing your part to help health care workers.”
For more information on proper use of face coverings, visit the CDC website.