Mobile isolation unit for highly contagious fits Air Force cargo planes
March 17, 2016
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa exposed a gaping hole in the U.S. military’s ability to respond to a humanitarian crisis involving a highly infectious, contagious virus.
As the United States pledged to send more than 3,000 U.S. troops to build treatment centers and set up mobile labs, the Pentagon didn’t have a way to safely evacuate personnel by military plane who might fall ill or be exposed to Ebola or other highly infectious diseases.
Now, the Air Force has at its disposal nearly two dozen portable isolation units that could be used to transport patients who are sick or possibly infected with a communicable, deadly disease.
One of those units made a brief stop this week at Ramstein Air Base, where military medical professionals from various nations are meeting for an aerospace medicine summit.
Set up in the spacious cargo hold of a C-17, the unit was draped in impermeable, transparent plastic sheeting; two patient modules, each capable of holding up to four patients in litters or chairs, were connected to a decontamination room for in-flight caregivers.
“All this really is is a hospital room in an airplane,” said Col. Nick Conger, an Air Force infectious disease consultant and doctor.
Each module weighs less than 1,500 pounds, about the size of a minivan, according to the Air Force.
The units combine high-tech sophistication and the simple equipment one might use on a camping trip. Negative airflow keeps contaminants inside the chamber, and an air-filtration system circulates clean air in, up to 24 times an hour. Portable chemical toilets — otherwise known as camping toilets — are set up inside for patients, with a makeshift curtain for privacy.
The pods are seamless and airtight, intended to keep pathogens inside and away from the aircrew and aircraft, while allowing caregivers to treat patients.
“I hope this is like a nuclear weapon and we never use it, but we have it if we need it,” said Brig. Gen. Kory Cornum, Air Mobility Command surgeon, at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
The Air Force and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, with assistance from other agencies, stepped into high gear to develop and test the Transport Isolation System in the summer and fall of 2014, Cornum said.
“When we knew we were going to be sending about 3,500 personnel to Liberia, we realized … we’ve got to be able to take care of them,” he said. “Part of taking care of them is getting them home expeditiously to a higher level of care.”
At the time, aircraft equipped to safely transport Ebola patients was scarce. A small, Georgia-based air charter company called Phoenix Air, on contract with the U.S. State Department, had ferried several Ebola-stricken American medical workers from West Africa. But the company’s aircraft could only handle one patient per flight.
A small company in St. Louis, Production Products, Inc., is building 25 of the military isolation units for the Defense Department, a contract worth about $7 million, Cornum said. About 22 are finished and the Air Force has hand-picked and trained the aeromedical crews that would perform such a mission.
“In four months, we went from an idea, to having initial operating capability to be able to move highly infectious patients safely,” Cornum said.
The modules, which are staged at several bases stateside, can be outfitted in the back of a C-17 or a C-130 Super Hercules. Using all the units, the Air Force could transport up to 200 patients. However, Cornum said there are currently only about 18 beds at medical centers in the United States equipped for Ebola patients.
Decontamination is critical to the process. Following a mission, all soft materials would be disposed of and incinerated, from nylon seat belt straps and seat coverings to the plastic sheeting. The only parts that get reused are the metal frames and floors. They would be run through a chemical fogger and sterilized inside a pressurized chamber at Joint Base Charleston, S.C.
“That will kill everything,” Cornum said.