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NEWS | Nov. 2, 2020

Microbiologist answers call for Army Reserve's COVID-19 response

By Maison Piedfort Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific

If you could help, would you?

That was what Dr. Y. Meriah Arias-Thode asked herself when the Army Reserve called her out of retirement and requested her help for COVID-19 response for four months. Arias-Thode had a full plate already in her role at Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific, where she uses her doctorate in environmental microbiology to lead a team working on the microbial fuel cell project.

Still, Arias-Thode’s answer was yes, she would. So began her journey back into uniform and on her way to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where Army Capt. Arias-Thode would be under a laboratory fume hood for the summer. She’d been a reservist for 22 years and had been retired for eight years, and now was called back into duty.

“I asked my family the same question — if you could help, would you? And if you were to help me do this, what would that look like?” said Arias-Thode about enlisting her family’s support. Her daughters offered to help cook dinners, and her husband urged her to go.

As the largest military medical training site in the world, Fort Sam Houston is tasked with handling much of the U.S. military’s COVID-19 testing needs, a massive undertaking. The Army needed all hands on deck; they needed someone like Arias-Thode.

Anyone who enlists in the time of coronavirus must be tested upon entry into basic training, and then upon entry into any subsequent training, with other checkpoints for testing in between. Enlisted personnel who require medical training go through Fort Sam Houston, known as the “Home of Army Medicine.” Civilians related to the Army mission on base must also be tested.

“We were running out of swabs, and the whole world needed them — the swabs and the viral transport media used to safely store swabs for testing,” Arias-Thode said.

In their article for Emerging Infectious Diseases, “Mapping of the US Domestic Influenza Virologic Surveillance Landscape,” Barbara Jester, Joy Schwerzmann et al. state that the U.S. performs about 77,000 influenza tests in a typical year. Testing that many specimens isn’t usually a problem as far as sourcing swabs and other materials go, but COVID-19 testing paints a different picture. According to a status report by John Elflein on entitled “Number of tests for COVID-19 in most impacted countries worldwide as of Nov. 2, 2020,” the U.S. has performed 145 million COVID-19 tests.

The Defense Logistics Agency was sending in whatever materials they could get, but as Arias-Thode explained, one can’t use just any swab or viral transport medium for coronavirus testing. “We’d get 2,000 of one type of swab, then maybe 1,000 of another type from a different manufacturer.”

Before new materials could be used to test for COVID-19, samples using the new materials had to be run through various testing instruments and provide reliable, control-matching results. That’s what Arias-Thode did for hours at a time under a fume hood, in full personal protective equipment, for four months.

“I just wanted to do them all at once sometimes and get it done, because for one instrument you could run 144 samples at a time,” she said. “But I had to make all the positive control specimens first, so I’d have to walk around and ask people to take the COVID-19 test, which is not pleasant.”

The test uses a nasal pharyngeal, six-inch-long swab, which collects mucus from the cavity between the nose and mouth. Arias-Thode also tested new, 3-D-printed swabs, which proved painful for specimen donors. Teams at Fort Sam Houston perform approximately 1,000 tests per day, and careful health and safety measures on base mean the need for COVID-19 testing materials won’t ease up anytime soon. But thanks to people like Arias-Thode, military teams can continue operations during crises like the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Not everyone initially called by the U.S. Army Human Resources Command fit the bill to return to service. Out of 25,000 available retirees, 6,000 were in medical fields — only 170 of whom were called back to duty. What makes Arias-Thode qualified for her role at NIWC Pacific — her educational background, biochemical expertise, and dedication to service — also made her a likely candidate for the Army’s COVID-19 response effort.

One person who noticed her commitment to service was the 45th Army Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle. During a surprise visit, Dingle spoke with more than a dozen scientists who shared a lab space with Arias-Thode, all of whom wore masks and maintained social distance during his visit.

“He was asking everybody their name, where they came from, what they do, and where they hope to go from here,” she said. “He mentored and joked around. I found that very cool because usually people that distinguished simply don’t have the time.”

When the Army Surgeon General asked Arias-Thode about her story, she told him she was a retiree, but felt strongly she could help the COVID-19 testing cause. She told him about the question she kept asking herself, “If you could help, would you?” and how her answer, her family’s answer, and the answer from her colleagues who rely upon her at NIWC Pacific, were all a “strong yes.”

To which Dingle responded, “So instead of running from the fire, you ran into it.” He then gave Arias-Thode a coin and thanked her for her service.

“Honestly, I was crying when he gave me the coin,” she said. “It was really touching. I’m glad I could help.” Arias-Thode credited her family and her team back home at NIWC Pacific in San Diego for their support in allowing her to answer the call.

As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Pacific’s mission is to conduct research, development, engineering, and support of integrated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber, and space systems across all warfighting domains, and to rapidly prototype, conduct test and evaluation, and provide acquisition, installation, and in-service engineering support.