PERSONAL VIGNETTE: Ensuring safety of disaster response volunteers is a mission within a mission

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District
Published Oct. 18, 2021
Nurse Heather Limerick, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division, performs a COVID-19 rapid test on an employee in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both employees were deployed as responders for Hurricane Ida, photo taken Oct.15, 2021.

Nurse Heather Limerick, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division, performs a COVID-19 rapid test on an employee in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both employees were deployed as responders for Hurricane Ida, photo taken Oct.15, 2021.

As public affairs specialists with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we are used to helping craft messages like “safety is our top priority” and “we are committed to keeping our team safe” but while developing messaging and talking points is part of our normal duties, it is not often that we are on the receiving end of our own words. Developing COVID-19 safety messaging in the Hurricane Ida disaster response was a game changer and our “talking points” have become real-life reminders of what we need to stay safe, while helping others.

I was a little nervous entering the isolated area where Occupational Health Nurse Manager Heather Limerick, RN was putting on a fresh pair of surgical gloves at her makeshift nurse’s station. Even with the vaccine mandate for federal employees and stringent proof of vaccination or polymerase chain reaction testing requirements throughout New Orleans proper, my newly developed sneezing fit and stuffy nose was creating some anxiety. Was it the seasonal allergies that seem to be common in southeastern Louisiana at this time of year? Was there just a lot of dust in the air from the storm? With more than 2,250 COVID “rapid” tests administered to USACE disaster responders across the mission’s footprint to date, only 0.53% (12 individuals) tested positive. Even with the low chance I’d have of a positive result, I figured taking an extra test outside of the 72-hour requirement was a necessary precaution.

Limerick, who normally works for the USACE South Atlantic Division in the regional occupational health center is supporting the mission in multiple locations to include an Emergency Field Office in New Orleans and Mandeville, Louisiana. She also assisted in getting field teams ready for deployment out of Mobile, Alabama. Limerick and her colleagues worked to keep up with the tempo of each USACE employee receiving an “asymptomatic” screening test every 72 hours. The now widely recognized rapid antigen swab was the primary tool for testing for the hundreds of disaster responders rotating in and out of the mission touch points.

When I arrived at the testing site, which was in a separate building from where we report, I waited until I was called. I had noticed people waiting outside in a separate area (clearly maintaining a distance from one another), a place I would later find myself scrolling through my cellphone as I waited for the ten-minute test results to become available.

“We ask about signs, symptoms, concerns and discuss any potential contact situations,” said Limerick.

For employees that are symptomatic, Limerick collects a sample and sends it to a laboratory that will perform the more detailed polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test; test results are available within 24 hours. For individuals for whom this additional level of testing is necessary, USACE requires self-isolation in their hotel rooms until test results come back. Those with positive test results are required to self-quarantine for up to 10 days and are monitored daily by Limerick, supervisors and the mission safety manager.

Limerick says that taking care of those who are under isolation varies from person to person, depending on their symptoms, what types of amenities their hotel offers (i.e, refrigerator, microwave, etc.) and to what extent they have access to food or other basics needs.

“It takes coordination with myself and the supervisor to really get a good picture of their status while they are in their hotel room,” Limerick said. “Mission Occupational Health must track type and severity of symptoms, assess the potential for further medical care, and act as a liaison and resource to the employee and supervisor for the entirety of isolation until case resolution.”

Care for isolated and quarantined personnel is part of the broader safety protocols USACE has implemented in disaster response situations. Sarah Futrell out of the St. Louis District, acted as mission safety manager for both hurricanes Laura and Delta last year in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and is on the ground once again for Hurricane Ida.

“Last year in Lake Charles was a lot different from this year in New Orleans because last year, there wasn’t a vaccine available,” Futrell said. “Now that we have a vaccine, not only are people are less likely to be severely ill if they test positive, we can also limit quarantine times for close contacts that are fully vaccinated by utilizing the recommended testing methods.”

Futrell notes that another major difference between the hurricane missions from last year and this year is the presence of an occupational health nurse on hand. By having regular COVID testing, early identification of positive cases allows for quicker response time and better decision making, she said. Last year, we had to rely on the individuals to report symptoms, in addition to wearing their masks and maintaining their distance from others. 

‘Safety and Occupational Health is like any other subject matter expertise, the most important step is getting the right people on the ground to anticipate needs, digest issues, and coordinate a calculated plan of action that supports mission success and accommodates the Safety and Health of our people,” said Limerick.

“For the most part, everyone [who tested positive] has been able to continue working in their hotels during their isolation period. To prevent future instances, we continue to reevaluate our mitigation efforts to meet the everchanging mission requirements. We have taken measures to ensure everyone has at least six feet between them by expanding our footprint; everyone is wearing masks, and we limit meeting times and number of attendees as much as possible.”

Admittedly, I was somewhat on edge when I learned by word-of-mouth that the office was being closed for a few days. In pandemic days, you aren’t thinking it’s a water main break, or a small fire caused by someone burning popcorn in the microwave—you assume the closure is COVID related. I soon after received an official text confirming the closure was because of positive cases in the office. I was curious to know what happens “behind the scenes” for the deep cleaning procedures when there is a confirmed positive case.

Futrell explained that cleaning crews come in and disinfect the workspace where the individuals who tested positive were sitting but also go through extensive cleaning in the entire office suite and surrounding common areas. They clean desks, phones, doorknobs, copy machines and any additional high traffic areas.

Personally, I felt better knowing that such an extensive cleaning regiment was done to help protect me. Limerick and Futrell recognize that being strong advocates for employee safety is critical for work to get done.

“The health of our workforce is imperative to accomplishing the mission—getting roofs on houses, giving people the ability to get back into their homes—if we keep our people healthy, they can keep the mission going,” said Limerick.

We are making sure that people feel comfortable doing their job and they’re being safe, and that we are providing them the tools to do that,” Futrell said.

The Operation Blue Roof signup deadline closed on Oct. 15, and to date more than 30,000 blue roofs have been installed. Staffing levels are starting to wind down as the mission is approaching completion. From my perspective, the challenges of working during the pandemic did not hinder mission success, evidenced by the record-setting blue roof installation rates compared to previous hurricane response. USACE has a clear strategy in place to successfully execute its mission within a mission—keeping disaster responders and the public safe.

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