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First aeromedical evacuation conducted with new containment chamber for COVID-19 patients

For the first time, the Air Force conducted an aeromedical evacuation using a transport module called the Negatively Pressurized Conex, or NPC, that was developed for transporting COVID-19 patients.

A total of 12 COVID-19 patients were evacuated on July 1 from the CENTCOM area of operations to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where they could receive additional treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

A C-17 Globemaster III from the 437th Airlift Wing out of Joint Base Charleston headed to Ramstein last week to remain on call to conduct such evacuations if needed, the Air Force said.

“This was definitely not your typical patient movement mission,” Maj. Benjamin Weaver, a bioenvironmental engineer and 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight NPC support team lead, said in an Air Force news release. “It was a long 22 hours for everyone involved, but the NPC and team performed exceptionally well to make it happen.”

The NPC, an isolated containment chamber, was designed to carry COVID-19 patients and others with infectious diseases without infecting the aircraft or aircrew. It’s unclear where in the CENTCOM area of operations the patients were evacuated from, and the Air Mobility Command declined to provide specifics when asked by Air Force Times.

Prior to the arrival of the isolated containment chamber, the Air Force had conducted 17 evacuations of COVID-19 patients using the Transport Isolation System, a tent-like, infectious disease containment enclosure that’s modeled after an isolation chamber created during the Ebola epidemic in 2014.

Air Mobility Command aircrew and medical personnel conducted their first evacuation of COVID-19 patients using the TIS method in April to evacuate three U.S. government contractors who had tested positive for COVID-19 from Afghanistan to Ramstein. They were also brought to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for further treatment.

But the TIS can only carry two to four patients, prompting Air Force medical staff in April to re-evaluate ways they could safely carry larger numbers of patients amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the Coronavirus pandemic kicked off, the TIS was the only capability we had ‘in stock’ to transport COVID-positive patients, and that capacity was limited to moving a handful of patients at a time,” 2nd Lt. Emma Quirk, an Air Mobility Command spokeswoman, told Air Force Times in May.

In comparison, the NPC can carry a maximum of 28 passengers, 23 ambulatory patients or 8 litters — or various combinations of those.

As a result, Quirk said Air Mobility Command and Air Force Materiel Command collaborated with academia and private industry to come up with a solution for transporting patients aboard military cargo aircraft in April.

“Watching the team come together to train on this system in theater and then fly its first mission shows what can be accomplished when whole-of-government and industry partners work selflessly, sacrificing long hours and personal time in order to produce a solution that saves lives,” NPC program manager Capt. Alexis Todaro said in an Air Force news release.

“It took a team of teams to get NPC from a concept to operational in under 100 days,” Todaro said.

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