NORTH CHICAGO, IL, NORTH CHICAGO, IL –
Every year, thousands of people enlist in the United States military. Whether it be a call to service, to pay for college, or for job stability, enlistees all support the defense of our nation. When the pandemic struck, shutting down recruitment and processing was just not an option. Our nation relied on force readiness and those going into service depended on beginning their careers.
Starting March 2020, USMEPCOM went on the defense. A task force was set up to ensure operations of the 65 MEPS would operate uninterrupted by COVID-19. The task force analyzed data to develop response measures, determine who has authority to make decisions, measure equipment and PPE levels, enhance cleanings, establish screening procedures and create a milSuite website (https://www.milsuite.mil/book/groups/covid-19-task-force).
“USMEPCOM kicked into gear immediately,” said Colleen Murphy, MD, Western Sector medical officer. “A Covid task force was promptly stood up who introduced a multi-tiered response matrix. We immediately adopted recommended practices from the CDC and implemented social distancing, health questionnaires, temperature checks and aggressive hand hygiene. As the science evolved, mask wearing was introduced, and applicants were screened before MEPS entry at the contract lodging facility.”
Recruiting commands were able to follow established guidance, keep applicants and employees safe and meet recruiting goals. From March 1, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021, USMEPCOM administered 968,000 ASVAB tests, 535,000 medical exams, and sent 208,000 qualified candidates to boot camp. Two remote processing stations were set up in May 2020, to provide increased capacity. Temporary facilities in Riverside, Calif. and Guam processed 1600 applicants, aiding in meeting the Service recruiting partners’ requirements.
“We don’t want to negatively impact recruits, whether it be a delay or them bringing COVID to boot camp,” said Cmdr. Endia Mendez, Western Sector deputy commander. “Because we have direct interaction with them, it’s still important that we follow CDC guidance and be mindful about wearing masks.”
When schools closed in March 2020, employees of the Student Testing Program were creative in both finding ways to reach students and help the team. Intermittent test administrators (ITAs), who would otherwise be out of work at the time, worked as COVID-19 screeners.
“The suspension of the Student Testing Program as a result of COVID-19 in early March hindered the ITAs from being able to administer school test sessions and negatively impacted their livelihood,” said Cathy Carter, Houston MEPS test control officer. “So to ensure that our ITAs remained gainfully employed while the Student Testing Program was suspended I presented them the opportunity to receive hours and work as COVID-19 screeners at the applicant hotel and at the entrance of the MEPS.”
Virtual outreach has been beneficial for recruiters and Education Services Specialists (ESSs), especially during school closures. USMEPCOM Testing Division adapted to reach students while they were remote learning at home and reduced their student-testing goal by 50%.
“The COVID pandemic presented unprecedented challenges and we had to adapt to the way we derived our testing goal,” said David Davis, Chief, Testing Division. “ASVAB Career Exploration Program (CEP) adapted to a virtual learning environment to support students, teachers, faculty, parents, and recruiters. Headquarters acquired Google Hangout accounts for all ESSs to facilitate virtual outreach to CEP stakeholders.”
To help reduce the possibility of spreading the virus, USMEPCOM initiated new allowances for telework and implemented travel restrictions. The Virtual Private Network (VPN) expanded to 10 times its previous capacity, providing a faster network for those working from home. While not everyone could eliminate face-to-face meetings due to job responsibilities, technology has been extremely useful in allowing collaboration while maintaining social distance. Mendez said staff was hesitant at first to switch in-person meetings for online ones, but now everyone is comfortable using video conference platforms.
The Covid task force aimed to provide clear guidance from the start of the pandemic. With revised recommendations from the CDC and continuing information about the virus, some of that guidance shifted over time. Reassuring staff and providing answers through their milSuite site has kept USMEPCOM steady.
“The uncertainty of the environment has added a lot of stress to MEPS,” said Mendez. “I think our leadership has done a great job of communicating with employees, and routing up questions they don’t have answers to.”
The rollout of vaccines eased some uncertainty of workplace safety environments. More than 75% of vaccine opt-in employees received their COVID vaccine within eight weeks of the first emergency use authorization. All federal employees have until Nov. 22, 2021 to be vaccinated per executive order. Personnel will be considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose. This means employees must get the vaccine by Nov. 8 or face possible disciplinary action.
Service members are also required to be vaccinated. Those deadlines differ by branch of service. Masks are still required while in DoD facilities, regardless of vaccination status.
“As a country, we must develop herd immunity through the safe and superior way – population based Covid-19 vaccines,” said Colleen Murphy, MD, Western Sector medical officer. “It will also be prudent to continue the measures we have learned to prevent transmissible disease. Masking and hand hygiene have been observed to reduce droplet, airborne and surface transmission diseases as well. Let’s take care of ourselves and each other. We must truly act together fighting the pandemic.”