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Military medical training continues during COVID-19

Students and instructors in the METC Respiratory Therapist program practice safe distancing and wear face coverings while training with mechanical ventilators. (Photo by Oscar Lopez) Students and instructors in the METC Respiratory Therapist program practice safe distancing and wear face coverings while training with mechanical ventilators. (Photo by Oscar Lopez)

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FORT SAM HOUSTON – While military and civilian health care workers around the globe do their part in the fight against COVID-19, the Medical Education and Training Campus (METC) is preparing the future enlisted medical force to provide critical support to these front-line providers.

Located on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, METC’s mission - to train the world's finest medics, corpsmen and technicians - is vital to force readiness and the nation. The tri-service schoolhouse facilitates training for nearly 50 allied health career fields for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

As students graduate many will augment active duty, guard and reserve component military medical teams in the COVID-19 response effort. Whether heading to new assignments around the world or returning home to support their local communities, these new graduates will be ready.

Students and instructors in the METC Respiratory Therapist program practice safe distancing and wear face coverings while training with mechanical ventilators. (Photo by Oscar Lopez)
Students and instructors in the METC Respiratory Therapist program practice safe distancing and wear face coverings while training with mechanical ventilators. (Photo by Oscar Lopez)

Establishing precautions to safeguard the health and safety of METC students and staff in the training environment is paramount to the mission.

“As we support the METC mission, we are concurrently strengthening the service components in their mission to ensure METC trainees safely meet the challenges that will be asked of them as military allied health professionals,” stated Navy Capt. Thomas Herzig, METC commandant.  

To mitigate potential risk, METC, by working closely with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, sought opportunities to meet the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines, whether it be by spacing students 6 feet apart in the classroom and labs, transitioning to distance learning, or other mitigating strategies.

METC’s Respiratory Therapist (RT) program has mitigated risk by successfully transitioning to online learning in conjunction with other measures.  

“RT students are distance learning by utilizing Joint Knowledge Online to deliver lectures and testing,” stated Oscar Lopez, the program’s director of clinical education.

Lopez explained that when practical exercises are scheduled, the class is divided into two or three smaller groups and each group is assigned a different time slot for hands-on practice. Students and instructors are spread out among the various lab rooms in order to maintain appropriate distancing while wearing face coverings to conduct the practical exercise.

Because RT students are prior enlisted and therefore more senior, they tend to live off post and can engage in distance learning from their residence.

However, some programs are too large for the infrastructure to support online learning. To work around that issue, some of the larger programs, like the Department of Combat Medic Training, have turned to implementing split training shifts. Half of the students conduct training from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the second half trains from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.

By split training there are fewer students sharing classroom and lab space, allowing them to maintain at least 6 feet of separation while also wearing face coverings for further protection.

Other steps have also been taken to protect students and staff members. “To promote social distancing and assist with minimizing contact within common areas, breakrooms within the medical instructional facilities have been closed until further notice,” stated Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Joshua Barr, METC senior enlisted adviser. “We also expanded some “no cover, no salute” areas in the outdoor courtyards to provide students more area to spread out.”

Barr said all formal graduation ceremonies have been suspended as well.

Transitioning an entire course from classroom to online during a short span of time, as well as the hands-on aspect of the curriculum, can make social distancing in any form a complicated task but Herzig had no doubt that METC could do it.

“The dedication and professionalism of our uniformed, civilian, and contractor personnel during this time is truly inspiring,” he declared. “It may not be ‘business as usual’, but they have all demonstrated these last weeks that we can adapt and still achieve success during this crisis.”

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