633rd MDG pilots new COVID surveillance testing procedure

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Delaney Gonzales and Aliza Reisberg
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, healthcare professionals have had to find ways to maintain access to medical care and adopt emerging technologies quickly. The 633rd Medical Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis has led the way for the Air Force, piloting a variety of new lab tests that are helping the military keep its total force safe and prepare for the flu season. The latest of these pilots is known as Sentinel Surveillance testing, and it provides bases the capability to identify undiagnosed prevalence of COVID-19 in asymptomatic base populations.

In June, the 633 MDG at Langley tested a new oral swab test that could be used for mass testing of military members, screening more than 7,800 personnel in a span of two-and-a-half days. The success of this trial laid the groundwork for the current Sentinel Surveillance pilot, which has now been rolled out to more than 20 other Air Force bases.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, the 633rd MDG has been a leader of testing and implementing new technologies and helping plan for what’s next,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Flowers, Pandemic Response Operations Flight, Operations Element Chief. “We stood up the Pandemic Response Operations Flight which allowed a subset of the medical group to focus on the COVID response so the rest of our medics could get back to normal operations and continue providing excellent care. Those involved in pandemic operations have had the opportunity to lead the way, along with our Laboratory and Public Health teams, in the implementation of these new processes.”

Each week at JBLE, the 633rd MDG tests approximately 100 base personnel, made up of a random sampling of the units on the installation. The Air Force Testing Strategy requires that every 14 days each installation tests up to one percent of the base population, along with up to 10 percent of higher risk populations like healthcare workers, personnel living in the dorms, and other critical base personnel.

“Conducting surveillance testing allows us, as a base, the ability to monitor the current state of spread throughout the base population and spot possible trends in COVID transmission,” said Tech. Sgt. Flowers.

Test results are provided in groups of four, meaning that results are not provided to individuals. If a group returns positive results, all members of that group are re-tested using in-house, rapid-result diagnostic testing. Only individuals who have a diagnostic positive test will be isolated, and only diagnostic tests are entered into member’s medical records.

In addition to sentinel surveillance and diagnostic molecular COVID-19 testing using nasopharyngeal swabs, the 633rd MDG now also has the capability to perform a rapid test known as COVID-19 antigen testing for those who have started exhibiting symptoms within the last five days. This uses a less invasive nasal swab sample and delivers same-day results.

“Rapid on-site COVID-19 testing enables us to identify positive individuals in less than 24 hours – sometimes in under an hour, said Tech. Sgt. Charita Dale, Pandemic Laboratory Operations noncommissioned officer in charge. “By having results same-day; we can quickly identify positive members and those who they may have possibly infected, slowing the spread and safeguarding Bases operations.”

“Rapid on-site testing also enables us to screen our deployers and have results back the same day. With other testing methods, results could take 48 hours or more. Faster results mean our warfighters are ready to travel down range to support the mission at a moment’s notice,” she added.

Quick, widely available testing will be even more important now that flu season has begun. That is why the 633rd MDG has recently added another molecular test, the Respiratory Pathogen panel, which can test for both flu and COVID-19 and deliver same-day results. The 633rd MDG’s new testing capabilities will allow for rapid identification of infected personnel and containment of any outbreaks, and the ability to differentiate COVID-19 from the flu will help ensure that members are provided the proper medical guidance. 

For those with symptoms, diagnostic COVID testing is still available. If you are exhibiting symptoms, call the COVID-19 hotline at (757) 764-0018 to determine what type of test is right for you.