NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --
Driving past a little girl holding her mom’s hand while clinching a doll, is nothing out of the ordinary. Taking a second glance, you realize everyone is wearing face masks and the little girl’s doll is no exception, it’s sporting one to match the fashionable outfit chosen for today. This surreal scene encapsulates how COVID-19 has affected the world’s current state and the new way of life it has created for future generations.
Nellis Air Force Base has administered approximately 1840 COVID-19 tests, and 99th Medical Support Squadron (MDSS) members are directly behind the medical group’s success.
99th MDSS members worked extended hours, invested personal time and innovated with in-house manufacturing to address the scarcity of essential equipment, while improving the base’s overall ability to stave off the spread of the pandemic.
“We were trying to get ahead of supply shortages,” said Tech. Sgt. Joshua Martin 99th MDSS NCO in charge of acquisitions. “We knew we needed the means to support more COVID testing, so we started to communicate with other bases to think quickly and creatively on how to find product. We worked 12-14 hour shifts, including weekends. It was all hands-on deck.”
The entire process started with a conversation on how to address the impending shortage of hand sanitizer.
“This was the first idea that got our wheels turning and our team thinking outside of the box,” said Martin.
Through one of their vendors, Martin and his team were able to find a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company willing to make sanitizer specifically for them. The cost and availability of the product led the acquisitions teams to shift into manufacturing instead of buying finished products.
“After the success of the sanitizer order, we started thinking about other products we could make,” said Martin.
Together they decided the next challenge to address was the Universal Transport Medium (UTM) vials used in the COVID-19 testing kits. After a patient is tested, the nasal swab used for the test is placed into a vial, sealed and mailed off for testing. This was a short order item and needed to be purchased for Nellis to continue their rigorous plan of daily COVID-19 testing.
Martin teamed up with Tech. Sgt. Kellianne Turner, 99th MDSS NCO in charge of medical equipment management, and together they found a local compounding pharmacy and procured more than 4,000 vials.
“Our typical channels were blocked, so we just explored different avenues,” said Martin. “Based on our current burn rate which was 600 vials per-month, we’ve set ourselves up to be secure until October, at minimum.”
As Nellis’ medical professionals continued to find new ways to adapt during the pandemic, Airmen from other career fields began to join the fight against the coronavirus. Members of the 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron started creating face shields with 3-D printers to aid healthcare workers on the frontlines.
Their contributions sparked another idea-- the possibility of making testing swabs with the printer, as well. Martin could do the ordering, but someone would have to produce and test the swabs.
That’s when Master Sgt. Jonathan Cagle, 99th MDSS NCO in charge of medical maintenance, and his team eagerly stepped in to grab the baton.
There was a nation-wide shortage on Nasopharyngeal swabs. Nellis ordered 50,000; however, a month had passed since the order date and there was still no delivery date in sight.
“My team knew of other facilities producing nasal swabs, so it was possible to obtain them,” said Cagle. “If we could get the right equipment, then we could accomplish the job.
Armed with two surgical guide resin 3-D printers, printing plan and design files provided by The University of Southern Florida (USF), Cagle’s team began printing. They’ve printed 3,000 swabs with an overall goal of completing 10,000.
“As soon as we start to see some of those 50,000 swabs that we ordered, coming in, then we can scale back a bit,” said Cagle. “For the time being, we still need them.”
Throughout the process, Cagle and his team have implemented tweaks while mastering their production processes. They’ve managed to trim nine hours off of their original production time and Airman 1st Class Bailey Panjkovich, a 99th MDSS biomedical equipment technician, has designed a new curing rack that is more stable than the original design provided by USF.
“Airman 1st Class Panjkovich spent about a week teaching herself how to use the program to design the new rack,” said Cagle. “She worked on the design and perfected the prototype on her own time.”
The 99th Medical Group won the Air Force Surgeon General Hospital of the Year for 2019. The hard work of Cagle, Martin and the dedicated medical support staff gives a tiny glimpse into why Nellis received this distinction.
“The team had extreme challenges to overcome from the very beginning, competing against the entire U.S. for PPE and lab testing items,” said Senior Master Sgt. Howard P. French, 99th MDSS superintendent of medical logistics. “The steady flow of supplies positioned the medical group so they could respond to any events or sustain care during a time period where the variables were unknown.”