Coronavirus test processing at UK base means faster results for service members
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Service members in the United Kingdom are getting their coronavirus test results sooner than they used to because the U.S. Air Force hospital at RAF Lakenheath has begun processing tests for the virus in-house.
The number of positive cases at Lakenheath and nearby RAF Mildenhall has also decreased since testing began, said Lt. Col. Douglas Michael, the public health officer for the 48th Medical Group. But that drop was likely due to measures taken across the U.K. to stem the spread of the virus, which in some cases causes severe respiratory illness that can lead to death.
“We suspect [the decrease] is due to approximately two weeks of social distancing and U.K. lockdown measures,” Michael said.
A Defense Department order to commanders at installations worldwide to stop publicly announcing new coronavirus cases among their personnel barred him from putting a number on cases at the base.
The hospital at Lakenheath has been sending coronavirus tests to its own lab, around 5 miles away at RAF Feltwell, for analysis since March 30, allowing samples to be processed seven days a week and the results to be returned the same day, officials from the 48th Medical Group said.
“The in-house testing capability cut what was a 3- to 7-day result process to a less than 24-hour result,” said Lt. Col. Shawn McFarland, 48th Surgical Operations Squadron commander.
Previously, tests were sent to British hospitals or a lab in Dayton, Ohio, said Maj. Sybil Taunton, spokeswoman for the 48th Fighter Wing.
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany also processes samples to see if a person has the virus, but shipping a test swab from bases outside Germany and getting results back can take days. Some bases, such as Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy, have chosen instead to send their tests to local hospitals, hoping for faster results.
The 48th Medical Group has taken other measures to try to minimize infection, including setting up a drive-thru testing area outside of the hospital, Taunton said.
A clinic also has been set up in a deployment tent, allowing patients with symptoms of coronavirus infection or who have been in contact with an infected person to seek care without entering the hospital and potentially bringing the virus with them, said Maj. Clinton Borchardt, the 48th Medical Group’s family health medical director.
Other measures to reduce exposure to the virus, such as telework, social distancing, wearing face coverings when distancing is not possible, and limiting gatherings outside immediate family to no more than two people, have also been taken at the base, and nearby Mildenhall and Feltwell.
Nonessential services, such as the arts and crafts center, outdoor recreation, auto hobby shop and fitness centers have been closed, and some services, such as access to chaplains and mental health professionals, are only being offered electronically.
The 48th Medical Group supports more than 27,000 service members and their dependents at the three bases, which are within a 12-mile radius of each other.
Meanwhile, new Pentagon guidance for coronavirus testing released Wednesday said patients with mild symptoms who can recover outside a clinical setting should not be tested.
But high-risk or mission-essential personnel can be tested at local command discretion after consultation with medical staff, the guidance said.
There were 1,898 coronavirus cases among active duty service members as of Thursday, according to the Pentagon. Eight people tied to the Defense Department have died after contracting the virus.
Stars and Stripes reporters Kent Harris and Nancy Montgomery contributed to this story.