WASHINGTON — Like many of the best inventions in history, this one started on a scrap of paper. Less than 30 days later, it became real.
In near-record time the Air Force developed a negative pressure isolation chamber to transport up to 28 passengers or 24 COVID-infected patients from points of infection to medical facilities.
The chamber, constructed within a 40-foot standardized shipping container, is negatively pressurized. Fans are continuously pulling the air from within the unit through high-efficiency HEPA particulate filters to prevent any exposure to the aircraft.
The container includes an attached anteroom – also under negative pressure – where medical professionals can safely change into or out of their medical equipment in order to administer patient care or exit the unit into the aircraft without risking contamination.
The Negatively Pressurized Conex (NPC) prototype passed a test on April 30 on a C-17. A few remaining technical issues, such as upgraded flooring, are set to be completed before the new chamber is ready for official use in mid-May.
“They were looking for a solution for high capacity airlift — immediately,” Lt. Col. Paul Hendrickson, materiel leader lead, said in an interview with TMN.
Hendrickson said to meet the 30-day gauntlet required the capability of “speed of relevance” while performing that speed with discipline. “You cannot do it wrong,” he said.
As developed, the NPC is an isolation prototype designed to fit on a C-17 or C-5. It has 28 seats for passengers, 24 seats for ambulatory patients that can be put up to hold 8 litters.
It builds on an existing unit, called a Transport Isolation System (TIS), that was first developed to deal with Ebola patients in 2014 that could transport two to four passengers. That unit was never used for Ebola patients. It was used on April 10 to evacuate three U.S. government contractors who tested positive for COVID-19 from Afghanistan to Ramstein Air Base, Germany for medical treatment at d Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
It was used twice more this weekend, with the third trip from Kosovo to Ramstein completed Sunday, the Air Force said.
Because of the airborne nature of COVID-19, the TIS had to be modified to ensure the safe movement of COVID-19 patients. “The Ebola chamber is the only thing out there that proved to be useable,” Hendrickson said.
Fortuitously, many of the key researchers and idea people were already at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., where the prototype was to be developed. That included test and engineering teams and medical experts.
Elements involved in the NPC project included Air Mobility Command; the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s, Air Force CBRN Defense Systems Branch (AFLCMC/WNU); the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (JPEO CBRND), along with many other organizations across the Department of Defense and academia.
Commercial design and fabrication was a team from UTS Systems, Highland Engineering Inc., and Delta Flight Products under an Other Transactional Authority (OTA) contract. The effort compressed a four-month contracting award process to seven days, with delivery of the prototype only 13 days after the contract award. All associated prototype and testing cost approximately $2 million, the Air Force said.
“It was a 13-day build,” Hendrickson said. “That this went so fast, one of the only reasons that it worked well was literally the team coming together” along with wide support for the program, cover from high ranks, and diligent oversight.
He said there are “zero issues” with the new chamber.
As of April 14, AMC had 16 fully configured, mission-ready TIS units, including two units forward-deployed to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The Air Force said its AMC is expanding its TIS inventory to meet anticipated needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal of having approximately two dozen units.
“Additional TIS are being constructed and staged at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, where medical professionals, aircrew and support personnel are being trained on their use and transport,” the Air Force said.
On April 27, AMC began pre-positioning a TIS Force Package at Travis Air Force Base, California, consisting of two TIS units aboard a C-17 supported by aircrew and medical specialists. This West Coast-based TIS staging will eventually include four TIS Force Packages “enabling AMC to more readily respond to requests to move patients in the INDOPACOM region who may be afflicted with a contagion like COVID-19,” the Air Force said.