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Public Health Emergency Working Group at forefront of Offutt COVID-19 response

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Lt. Col. Garrett Hogan, 55th Mission Support Group deputy commander and Offutt Public Health Emergency Working Group coordinator, works out of the base Emergency Operations Center March 20, 2020 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. (U.S. Air Force photo by Charles Haymond)

A photo supporting a news story.

The Offutt Public Health Emergency Working Group operating out of the base Emergency Operations Center March 20, 2020 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Much of the group now works from home or office to increase social distancing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Charles Haymond)

A photo supporting a news story.

Maj. (Dr.) Elaina Wild (center), 55th Medical Operations Squadron public health emergency officer, works with other Public Health Emergency Working Group members in the base Emergency Operations Center March 20, 2020 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. (U.S. Air Force photo by Charles Haymond)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

As the world continues the battle against the spread of COVID-19, one Offutt team has worked day-in and day-out to protect Team Offutt and the surrounding communities.

The Public Health Emergency Working Group, directed by the 55th Wing commander on March 5, has played a major role in Offutt’s response.

“We serve as the commander’s searchlight in the darkness to identify future problems or issues before they arise,” said Lt. Col. Garrett Hogan, 55th Mission Support Group deputy commander and PHEWG coordinator. “We then build a plan to counter those problems before they arrive, allowing us to lean into the problem proactively rather than being taken by surprise and reacting.”

The PHEWG, a cross-functional joint team of representatives from the 55th Wing, tenant units and other organizations, collect medical, DoD, USAF and local guidance, analyze it, and then provide it to base leadership in daily teleconferences for course-of-action decision making.

Their work has been instrumental in executing preventative measures such as gate screening, sanitization supply requisition and distribution, disinfection guidance, quarantine and isolation guidance, personnel tracking and public messaging, which has helped prevent the spread of the virus.

Hogan said one of the biggest challenges for the PHEWG is facing a pandemic that no modern military has seen.

“There is no real checklist for this task,” Hogan said. “We are unfortunately at the mercy of what the virus wants to do.”

Since the virus reached the U.S., the PHEWG has been working closely with local hospitals, agencies and higher headquarters to develop a plan for protecting Team Offutt and the surrounding communities.

Much of the wing commander’s medical guidance is provided by a Public Health Emergency Officer assigned to the group.

Maj. (Dr.) Elaina Wild, a doctor with specialized training in public health emergency management, provides daily updates, guidance and recommendations for preparing, declaring, responding, and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a very novel virus,” Wild said. “One of the biggest challenges from a public health and medical perspective is staying on top of and tracking the rapid evolution and understanding of this virus. We really didn’t have a good idea of how it spread initially, how contagious it was, what it’s mortality rate was or whether it was airborne or not. The bottom line is we really don’t know as much as we’d like to due to the novel nature of this virus and the rapid evolution of the medical communities’ understanding of SARS Co-V 2. However, we are all resolutely and completely engaged, and we are making progress every minute.”

Wild said the medical community has seen success in flattening the curve with the actions that have been taken, but there is still much to learn and much the public should do to continue flattening the curve.

She said it is not easy to change cultural norms such as socializing, shaking hands or going out for dinner at a restaurant, but it is necessary.

“It’s a huge challenge, not just for public health, but for every individual who is responding to this virus,” Wild said. “Our biggest challenge globally as a public health response is education; getting people to understand the severity and consequences, and getting people to change their behavior.”

In addition to public health, PHEWG representatives from contracting, legal, services, logistics, security forces, communications and wing staff agencies have also contributed to flattening the curve at Offutt.

Hogan said the PHEWG and base have seen many wins since the pandemic began. He is hopeful this continues, but emphasized a return to normal is still unclear.

“The biggest win of all, is that Team Offutt is still healthy and still in the fight,” Hogan said. “We don’t want to move too soon, but we also don’t want to be too late. So identifying that balance is something we will be working on for the next few months.”

For the most current information regarding Offutt’s response to COVID-19, please visit the Offutt AFB Facebook page or website at www.Offutt.AF.mil.