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AFMES missions continue through COVID-19

Two men sitting at a table going through sample bottles Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Edinmel Balterocruz (left) and Air Force Master Sgt. Jesson Pareja, both Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Forensic Toxicology laboratory technicians, accession samples for testing April 13, 2020. Balterocruz and Pareja and the Division of Forensic Toxicology continue to support national security and combatant commanders through timely and effective testing for the abuse of illicit drug threats. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nicole Leidholm)

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Armed Forces Medical Examiner System | Coronavirus

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. – The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System remains operational despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has been a rapidly evolving situation in spite of the challenges we see with the stay-at-home order,” said U.S. Army Col. Louis Finelli, AFMES director. “The workload hasn’t changed, just the way we’re accomplishing the mission.”

AFMES is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, State of Delaware and 436th Airlift Wing commander of social distancing and significantly reduced manning. The efforts are to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and to prioritize the health and safety of personnel.

“The organization conducted a critical mission analysis and determined the minimum number of employees required to accomplish the mission,” said Richard Gates, AFMES operations manager. “The footprint in the facility is at the absolute minimum and the majority of administrative work is covered by telework employees.”

Gates added, AFMES is a resilient organization that is committed to accomplishing the mission during the global pandemic.

In accordance with directives, AMFES began working in two-shifts to maintain operations, significantly reducing the number of employees in the facility to mission essential duties only.

“We have implemented a two-shift work environment that reduces the number of staff at work at any given time,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Sartori, AFMES Forensic Toxicology director. “We have found that we are more efficient in completing our tasks and will explorer this work schedule as a potential long-term process.”

The DoD DNA Operations section has also adjusted to the guidance, working with only 12 percent of staff on each shift. Although work load has remained the same, sample processing and casework turn-around times have been severely impacted.

“We had to adopt to the reduced staffing levels needed to protect our people as well as maintain mission operations for the AFMES, [Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] and [military criminal investigative organizations] groups,” said Dr. Timothy McMahon, AFMES DoD DNA Operations director. “Due to DoD, State and Federal guidelines in regards to social distancing we are operating two 8-hour shifts and performing DNA testing for both the AFMES and the DPAA and assisting MCIO groups with priority criminal and missing persons casework and processing priority family reference samples to assist the DPAA with identifications.”

According to McMahon, the logistics of moving to a two-shift environment posed a challenge, with communication across the organization becoming paramount.

“I make sure that we are in constant contact with my employees so that they feel tied to the organization still and do not feel alone during this time,” said McMahon. “Communication has become key so that people understand what is going on and how we are protecting them while they are here at work.”

Even with the impacts of COVID-19, AFMES has persevered through the challenges in stride.

“It’s imperative that AFMES continues the mission during these trying times,” said Finelli. “I’m very proud of how AFMES has adjusted so quickly to our new routine.”

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This instruction establishes policy, assigns responsibilities, and provides direction for forensic medicine activities throughout DoD In accordance with the authority in DoD Directive (DoDD) 5124.02, and provides for the continued operation and governance of AFMES, a component of the Defense Health Agency (DHA) under DoDD 5136.13, in carrying out assigned functions, including those under Section 1471 of Title 10, United States Code (U.S.C.).

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