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Transcom Acts Quickly During COVID-19 Pandemic

Gerald Scroop

October 7, 2020

As COVID-19 hit the nation , for the Defense Department, U.S. Transportation Command and much of industry, there was no opportunity to stop movement, the commander of Transcom said today at the virtual National Defense Transportation Association-U.S. Transportation Command Fall meeting.

Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons said Transcom and the joint deployment distribution enterprise had to, and did, continue to operate despite COVID-19. He said some things were scaled back, exercises were cancelled and a couple of ships were not offloaded. 

"We did all those kinds of things," the combatant commander said. "But at the end of the day, we never had to stop flying planes and sailing ships. [We] needed to appropriately mitigate those mission outcomes with the appropriate force protection." 

Transcom had to figure out very rapidly how it was going to move highly infectious patients, because when the pandemic began, Transcom did not have a highly infectious patient movement capability, he said, giving credit to the Air Mobility Command and the broader Air Force. 

A general officer autographs a hard hat during a visit.

"The first thing they did was dust off the transportation isolation system from the Ebola outbreak. But the Department of the Air Force was able to fill a joint urgent requirement in less than 90 days from the time I started the requirements process … [to] effectively move 300 COVID-19-positive patients across the globe," Lyons said.

He said he is very grateful for that effort, and, when Transcom needed to figure out when it was moving troops and passengers, it had to have a way to do it that was safe. So, Transcom triaged passengers loading on passenger planes, for example.

"The challenges are very encouraging on commercial aircraft, with HEPA filtration and a very high air exchange rate of every two to five minutes …," he said.

Soldiers fire a 17-volley salute.

In addition to continuing the mission and protecting the force, the department was called upon to support the whole-of-government effort, Lyons noted. Even now, Transcom stands ready if called to support Operation Warp Speed. 

"It's not clear how we're going to get to the end of this with the number of planes that are still parked with the amount of debt that's occurring in the passenger airline industry, specifically," he said, adding that Transcom is watching and working closely with industry. 

One of the things that was in the unknown of unknowns that became very clear is DOD had to significantly ramp up its level of collaboration and coordination with its industry partners, to make sure the DOD understood what they were seeing and what they were enduring, Lyons said.

A general officer conducts an official visit.

The main goal, he added, was to ensure that Transcom understood viability to support the DOD in a crisis, and to ensure it understood how we could assist them to make sure that they maintain their viability. 

That resulted in a weekly drumbeat very early on — in that the crisis continues to this day in each of the mode sectors, he said.

"It just underscores for me how important NDTA and this level of collaboration is within history," Lyons said. "And when a crisis strikes, that's not the time to be building a relationship. You can't surge trust in a crisis. It underscores how important it is to maintain this level of collaboration and transparency as we continue to work through this challenge. … It's going to take years, though, in some sectors to recover fully from what we're seeing today."

www.coronavirus.gov

www.cdc.gov/coronavirus

www.usa.gov/coronavirus

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