AUSA NEWS: Army Leaders Reflect on Lessons Learned from Pandemic Response (Updated)

By Mikayla Easley
A research microbiologist harvests samples of coronavirus in a laboratory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Defense Dept. photo

From building alternate care facilities to administering vaccines, a “whole-of-government” response has been key for the U.S. Army’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said Oct. 13.

However, Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, the surgeon general of the Army and commanding general of Army Medical Command, said the accomplishments were not made without facing significant challenges.

“I could stand here and talk and brag about Army medicine and the thousands of soldiers who have responded to ... [the threat facing] the nation and the world,” he told reporters at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. But "we received a lot of lessons learned as we responded. We were building the airplane as we fly," he added.

Dingle emphasized that collaboration between the United States Army, other federal agencies and local governments throughout the pandemic improved the effectiveness of the response. He noted that the Army mobilized over 50,000 troops, built alternate care facilities around the United States, augmented testing capabilities and distributed personal protection equipment.

Retired Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, president of federal programs at WSP, echoed Dingle’s praises at the panel. As the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until January 2021, Semonite led the planning and construction of 38 alternate care facilities for COVID-19 patients across the United States, according to a service fact sheet.

“We love building with concrete and steel, but the most important thing we build is relationships,” Semonite said. He added that communication with other organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health and Human Services and local governments, was “invaluable.”

Partnership with commercial industry was identified as another important part of the Army’s response. 

“We were in a position where we knew that industry was going to be the true heroes,” said retired Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, who served as deputy chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed — the federal effort to accelerate a COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics. He touted the efforts of pharmaceutical, delivery and other supply companies during vaccine production and distribution.

But COVID-19 vaccines were not the only part of the pandemic response where industry stepped in to help. Semonite said he also witnessed many industry professionals dropping private work to help build alternative care facilities.

“General Dingle talked about the heroes of the pandemic being the doctors and nurses — no doubt about that,” Semonite said. “But industry is probably one of those unsung heroes.”

Dingle also noted that since the beginning of the pandemic, the Army medical community has expanded its virtual behavioral health care services by over 100 percent. He said that this growth will allow it to leverage telehealth technologies to improve access to health care across the Army — especially in remote areas.

While officials agreed there were many successes, they also agreed there were failures.

“We blew it in a lot of ways,” Ostrowski said.

For him and Operation Warp Speed, the biggest failure was the inability to strategically communicate to Americans about the vaccine, he said.

Social media has changed the digital landscape of the United States, and the Army needs to address communications aggressively or else the service will continue to be challenged, he added.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Gen. Ostrowski said the Army should have communicated better about the vaccine to Americans. He was referring to the U.S. government in general.

Topics: Defense Department

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