SGT Michael Estrada, medical lab technician, preps samples in the hospital lab to be transported to BSL3. (U.S. Army Courtesy photo by: Amabilia Payen, WBAMC Public Affairs.)
William Beaumont Army Medical Center is working with the El Paso Health Department in order to test the COVID-19 swabs taken from those suspected of being infected with COVID-19, under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act of 1988 and the Center for Disease Control Laboratory Response Network.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) is a 1988 United States federal law designed to bring an orderly and systematic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens.
“We are working hand-in-hand with the City of El Paso Public Health laboratory to produce the fastest results possible for service members and their families, DoD beneficiaries and the citizens of El Paso Texas,” said Lt. Col. Sonny Huitron, the Chief of Pathology and Laboratory Area Services, WBAMC. “Our goal is to get patients an answer within 24 hours and being able to ‘resource-share’ with the city has made that possible.”
Because of a national-wide shortage of necessary COVID-19 tests, equipment, and personnel, being able to pool resources and utilize other testing facilities is vital in helping to keep the community safe.
“The current collaboration that we have with Fort Bliss is an ongoing testament to our longstanding relationship with the post,” said El Paso City Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino. “This collaboration helps both the civilian and military community to make sure the health of our region is addressed.”
The WBAMC laboratory is set-up for COVID-19 testing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This allows for increased throughput designed to process an increased number of tests with decreased turn around times.
“We keep the WBAMC lab and hospital staff updated on any significant changes that arise with regards to testing and safety. One such issue that is continually addressed is the usage of personal protective equipment (PPE),” said LTC Huitron. “In all healthcare environments, healthcare workers do not know whether an individual has COVID-19, so we use PPE to help prevent the transmission of the virus to hospital staff and patients we are caring for. An absolute priority is the well-being of our service members, healthcare workers and our patients. Minimizing the spread of this virus through PPE, hand hygiene and social distancing, flattens the curve and allows our community to prepare for the road to recovery.”
The basic PPE used during screening of COVID-19 patients may include: gloves, eye protection, a face mask or respirator, and coats or gowns. The PPE used in laboratories is determined by the Biosafety Level put forth by the Centers for Disease Control. WBAMC Bio-Safety Laboratory is a level three.
“I am in direct contact with biohazards every day, and I may wear gloves, but I still wash my hands,” said Emerito Rodriguez, medical technologist and biosafety officer in the WBAMC Bio-Safety Laboratory. “The main thing to help combat this virus is to just wash your hands.”
The CDC and other health officials are reminding people that proper hand-washing is one of the most effective means of keeping the virus at bay.
“In my opinion, the military is the tip of the spear as far as leading the fight against this virus,” said Huitron. “We have resources, expertise, and maintain a good relationship with the local community. Beaumont continually trains for circumstances like this. We’re good at adapting to new situations and working in harsh environments. Working with the El Paso community has only strengthened our abilities, and hopefully, together, we can stop the spread of this virus.”