COVID: One year later on Okinawa

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gregory Procaccini, the Joint COVID-19 Response Center Liaison Element officer in-charge with the COVID Cell, drafts an email at the Public Health & Behavioral Health center, Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan Dec. 2, 2020. The COVID Cell is one of three active organizations, along with the Joint COVID-19 Response Center and Task Force Safeguard, in combating the spread of COVID-19 among Status of Forces Agreement personnel on Okinawa. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan H. Pulliam)
U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gregory Procaccini, the Joint COVID-19 Response Center Liaison Element officer in-charge with the COVID Cell, drafts an email at the Public Health & Behavioral Health center, Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan Dec. 2, 2020. The COVID Cell is one of three active organizations, along with the Joint COVID-19 Response Center and Task Force Safeguard, in combating the spread of COVID-19 among Status of Forces Agreement personnel on Okinawa. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan H. Pulliam)

COVID: One year later on Okinawa

by Lance Cpl. Ryan Pulliam
Marine Corps Installations Pacific

CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan — Since the onset of 2020, Status of Forces Agreement personnel from across the island of Okinawa have diligently managed to track and quell the spread of COVID-19 to the fullest extent among the SOFA community. Even through times of hardship, U.S. Forces Japan personnel attached to teams dedicated to COVID-19 response operations worked together to maintain the readiness of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility.

Having stood up for nearly a year, the COVID Cell is one of four organizations, along with the Joint COVID-19 Response Center, Task Force Safeguard and the now-deactivated Task Force Permanent Change of Station, tasked in combating the spread of COVID-19 among SOFA personnel on Okinawa. While each organization contains its own respective sections with varying missions and objectives, all entities operate in-tandem for the health and safety of every one on Okinawa.

The COVID Cell, JCRC and TFSG, each with unique missions, are located a walking distance away from the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa. All four organizations, including TF PCS, were hubbed on Camp Foster.

“We are much more prepared and resilient now,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie A. Nochisaki, a public health nurse with Naval Medical Readiness Training Command Okinawa and the COVID Cell officer in-charge. Since January, Nochisaki has led the USNHO in COVID-19 response operations.

“We’ve come so far from [the beginning],” said Nochisaki speaking of her COVID Cell team. “The information that gets called in, when we have a new case; the team knows exactly what they’re going to do with it, how to handle it, and how to disseminate it to the commands and leadership for their awareness.”

The 24/7 COVID hotline, dedicated to all things COVID-19, was the primary resource for information since implementation of mitigation operations, Through this medium, the COVID Cell and the USNHO have gathered ample experience from responding to calls, especially in regards to telemedicine.

“[Telemedicine] has become a real hot topic of what’s new in not only private medicine, but military medicine as well,” said Lt. Cmdr. Joel P. Trausch, the Occupational Medicine Department lead with Naval Medical Readiness Training Command Okinawa and the COVID Care Nurse Line lead. “We’ve been using what’s called ‘virtual appointments’ for about the last five years--really putting a substantial degree of importance in which the provider calls the patient at home and decides whether or not face-to-face is required through answering questions.”

Trausch has been attached to COVID operations since February and has been a part of the COVID Care Line since July.

According to Trausch, the implementation of virtual appointments decreases the amount of foot traffic at the USNH, which in turn, decreases the amount of face-to-face encounters with others. Such a method would prove effective against a highly contagious virus that has infected over 60 million worldwide to date.

“Since we already had the infrastructure in place, it was a pretty easy transition,” Trausch said. “It’s only a matter if it is staffed right.”

With a team composed of medical personnel from the USNHO, the 18th Medical Group stationed on the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base and Marines from across the island, Nochisaki shined a spotlight on the collaboration between the branches making the transfer of information seamless.

“Seeing so many personnel come in without any background in public health, working long hours, [collaborating] with different individuals,” Nochisaki said, “they all rise to the occasion.”

However, the hard work of dedicated COVID-19 response cells is not the only answer to quelling the spread of the virus.

Predicting the call rates to the COVID Care Line alone, Trausch believes upticks in the number of calls each day is only probable. He added, however, “Is it something we can 100 percent handle? Absolutely.”

Nochisaki elaborated by saying it is important that everyone, not just uniformed service members, to maintain constant vigilance for the public well-being of the on-base and off-base communities.

“Now at this time,” she added, “our community is more familiar with the conversations around COVID and the restrictions.”

The vast majority of previous COVID-19 SOFA cases has been through mandatory exit-Restriction of Movement testing from personnel returning from leave from the continental U.S., executing a permanent change of station and arriving under the Unit Deployment Program.

Having only been attached to the COVID Cell for less than a month, Lt. Michael Nguyen, a dental officer with 3rd Dental Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group and the COVID Cell Trace Team lead, felt proud to be a part of such a dedicated team.

“Before I joined, I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes,” Nguyen said, “but everyone here sacrifices their time from their families, their holidays, their food breaks, coming in on their days off and constantly staying late to get the job done.”

The first cases of COVID-19 were first reported in November 2019. More than a year later, new advancements and milestones are still arising. Many more anniversaries are to come as the four organizations continually make strides against COVID.
On Feb. 14 and 19, 2020 two Okinawan taxi drivers tested positive to COVID-19 after transporting passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship when it made a port call at Naha Port, Okinawa. As the one year anniversary of COVID-19 on Okinawa Prefecture approaches, the dedicated teams of COVID response will continue to work thereafter until the virus is completely eradicated.

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