‘Stepping Into Chaos’: USPHS Officers on the COVID-19 Fight

‘Stepping Into Chaos’: USPHS Officers on the COVID-19 Fight
From left, Capt. Terri Cornelison, Capt. David de la Cruz, Lt. Cmdr. Naomi Aspaas, and Capt. Karen Munoz, USPHS, all spoke to MOAA about their work during the COVID-19 crisis. (First image courtesy Terri Cornelison, other images by Jennifer Milbrett for MOAA)

(This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)


For America’s uniformed health officers, the nation’s strike force against the world’s most dangerous viruses, the fight against COVID-19 has become the largest deployment in their 223-year history. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps deployed more than two out of three of its 6,100 officers, mobilizing them from across its 11 professional public health and medical disciplines. Back-to-back deployments became routine.


As the virus persists, officers have remained on the front lines of the response, deploying to support military installations, community testing sites, tribal territories, nursing homes, alternate care sites, airports, hospitals, and a cruise ship.


“The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is the safety net for underserved populations,” said Rear Adm. Susan Orsega, who oversees the corps. “We are here on the front lines and in the day-to-day assignments we do to meet the needs of our communities. Our uniformed health officers are willing to go anywhere, at any time, to meet the nation’s most urgent public health needs.”


The service is often overlooked until times of public health emergencies. Now the corps is getting a boost as it commissions its inaugural Ready Reserve Corps. These officers will backfill health care facilities when other USPHS officers must deploy.


“I envision the Ready Reserve Corps acting as a force multiplier, providing continuous quality care during our current public health emergency and the public health emergencies of the future,” Orsega said. “Now, more than ever, our Ready Reserve Corps is needed to not only sustain the mission, but to give respite and renewal to our active duty officers.”


Since March 2020, when USPHS officers deployed to Washington state, the U.S. epicenter of the virus at the time, more than 4,500 officers have deployed in support of COVID-19 missions, according to the Commissioned Corps.


[FROM 2020: On the Front Lines: USPHS Officers and the COVID-19 Pandemic]


“Over the last year, I have watched with pride as Public Health Service officers have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic to help our nation turn the tide on the defining public health challenge of our time,” said Vice Adm. Vivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon general. “I know the response placed extraordinary demands on officers and their families as many of them undertook difficult deployments, often more than once. When we do finally emerge on the other side of this pandemic, it will be in no small part because of the service our officers rendered and the sacrifices they made. I am grateful to them for all they have done.


[RELATED: USPHS Officer, MOAA Life Member Reflects on the Battle Against COVID-19]


“We will shoulder together as we continue to work with the [Health and Human Services] secretary and the president to vaccinate the American public and address this crisis.”


Here are reflections from four USPHS officers who have spent the past year battling the virus — from heartbreaking tragedy to joyous moments that pushed them to keep up the fight against a persistent enemy. 


Fighting the Fear

When she puts on her uniform, Capt. Terri Cornelison sometimes wonders if the impending battle will be her last.


“We all understood — and we sort of didn’t speak this because you don’t when you go out — but we all understood that there was a high probability not all of us would make it back,” Cornelison said.


On this team, many of the officers had deployed for missions related to Ebola, she said.


“I knew that they knew that it was possible to get back home. And so, with all of that, we were really able — each and every one of us — to combat our fears and to channel that into the work of the mission.”


In her day job, Cornelison is a gynecologic oncologist who treats women battling cancer. When her orders came in March 2020, she shifted gears and was charged with leading a 28-person clinical strike team in a long-term care facility in Washington state, where health care workers were first challenged to control the spread of the novel cornonavirus. Her focus was on shoring up operations at the center, while getting her team home safely, she told Military Officer.


They augmented support at Life Care Center of Kirkland, where at least 26 residents died in one month alone after contracting the coronavirus. Most people selected for the team had deployed in support of Ebola missions, so they understood the dangers. For 11 days, the officers walked the halls of the facility to provide temporary medical surge support.


Cornelison regularly popped into rooms to provide consultations while also acting as a source of strength for her team. They frequently walked past an agonizing reminder of the enemy they were up against.


“There was a point on every deployment where you are reminded of why you’re there,” Cornelison said. “This was a day where often you look in the lobby of the health care facility, you saw those huge, gorgeous floral arrangements from funerals. There were eight of them in the lobby. At that point, none of the residents were seeing it because the residents were in quarantine in their rooms. The staff saw it, though. And it just brought home the intensity of why we were there and why it was important that we were there.”


The success of the deployment was modeled into a White House initiative to create engagement teams that provided technical assistance on safety and infection control to long-term care facilities nationwide, she said.


“When you saw the strength and the resilience and the dedication that was around you, it quells your own fears and concerns, and you lean in,” Cornelison said. “We also knew that we had the eyes of the nation watching us; we’re used to that. So we knew that many depended on our success.


“When you’re in a situation where you have all of that, you just do what you do. You bring your gifts. We’re used to stepping into chaos and doing our best and leaving the situation better than you found it.”


‘That Helped Us Keep Going’

Health care workers covered from head to toe in protective gear were not a calming sight for the long lines of people who were waiting to get COVID tests, terrified they had contracted the deadly virus.


In Texas, home to one of the country’s largest Hispanic populations, the fear was compounded by reports from the Centers for Disease Control that Hispanic people were contracting coronavirus at a rate of 1.7 times higher than non-Hispanic White populations.


The state was so overwhelmed by the number of people falling ill and dying from the virus that officials were forced to set up a makeshift hospital in a convention center, and low-level offenders from a detention facility were brought in to assist with moving bodies awaiting autopsies at the morgue, according to news reports.


Yet Capt. David de la Cruz watched health care workers ease the anxiety. He was the officer in charge of setting up the first community-based testing site in Houston. He served as the liaison between the Department of Health and Human Services and officials from the city and hospital system.


“The people who are coming in under the tent to get tested, as nervous and scared and concerned as they were … they were so grateful that we were able to provide the service to them, and that helped us to keep going every day,” de la Cruz said. “The people I have been fortunate enough to deploy with and serve alongside with are just some of the most caring and careful and compassionate people. I saw the goodness in people every day doing this work.”


The testing site — one of more than 3,300 nationwide — was selected a few months before the region experienced a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.


“We all know that there’s no way this could be a successful response if we were not targeting the people in most need and at the highest risk,” de la Cruz said. “They really wanted to make sure that they were in the right places and really able to serve the most vulnerable populations and the communities most in need.”


Public Health Service officers augmented city health officials who had already built trusting relationships with local citizens. They took extra steps to ease the minds of people who were scared, by retaining a Spanish-speaking staff member on site and ensuring all signs were written in as many as 13 different languages.


After two deployments to set up testing sites in Houston, de la Cruz deployed to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he took responsibility for the care and protection of border agents and the people they serve.


“This is what we do. This is what we love to do. This is what we’re trained to do,” de la Cruz said. “This is where I believe our Public Health Service Commissioned Corps shines is in the time of crisis. This is when all of our training and experience, expertise, education best positions us to provide service, provide care and comfort. This is why we have the U.S. Public Health Service in times like this, so that we could be the trusted professionals to lead the way.”


Called Home to Serve

In the Southwest, Lt. Cmdr. Naomi Aspaas answered the call to care for another vulnerable community — indigenous people. Aspaas, a Navajo, felt she was called home.


“Yá’át’ééh,” Aspaas said, voicing the traditional Navajo greeting that means “it is good.”


“I was going home, not only to support the Navajo Nation, but also to preserve our culture, our language, our traditional songs and dance, our ceremonial blessings, and our way of life,” she said. “The virus affected our senior citizens throughout the country. For the Navajo people, our elders are revered, and they are the keepers of our Navajo traditional knowledge and language. So that was really special for me, to go back and serve in that manner.”


Aspaas grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation in the Four Corners area near Shiprock, N.M. Her grandfather encouraged her to study hard so she could have a successful career, not only to support herself, but to serve her Navajo people and her country. During the pandemic, her community needed her more than ever. In May 2020, she provided care at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in New Mexico.


Across the country, indigenous American groups were reporting high rates of COVID-19 infections, revealing a divide in access to health care. About one-third of Navajo people did not have access to running water, according to the nonprofit The Navajo Water Project. That makes it more difficult to wash hands, one of the key ways to combat coronavirus.


Also, many Navajo homes are multigenerational, so elders face greater risk of exposure to the virus from other family members.


“I felt like I was the right person with the right skill set in the right community,” Aspaas said.


In September, Aspaas deployed again, this time to the Kuakini Health System in Honolulu. She worked as a clinical nurse, augmenting hospital staff and routinely working in the emergency room with COVID-19 patients. She focused on protocols for personal protective equipment and tried to build rapport with her patients without being able to offer comfort through simple touch.


The feeling of anxiety reminded her of when she started her career and was caring for HIV-positive patients. Over time, Aspaas noticed relief on the faces of the staff nurses and patients at the hospitals. She knew the USPHS was making a difference.


“Being a health care provider, you go to school knowing that you want to help people — no matter the situation, no matter the environment, no matter the population,” Aspaas said. “So when you see people in pain, you want to be able to provide care to them, give them comfort, give them hope.”


‘A Drop of Hope’

Cars snaked through the lanes of Delaware’s Dover International Speedway, but they weren’t carrying race car drivers — the people were waiting to get their COVID vaccines. An older man drove up to Capt. Karen Munoz, a USPHS officer and registered nurse who had been inoculating patients all day.


He asked her to hold on for just a second, then picked up a piece of paper on which a short prayer was written. He started reading, catching the attention of other nurses nearby, who crept a little closer to listen.


“May it be your will that with my vaccination, I will be granted the ability to heal and keep safe humankind and be granted the privilege to fulfill the mitzvah of one who saves a life. Blessed are you, healer of all who are sick,” the man said.


“Amen,” echoed across the drive-thru lanes.


“And then I gave him the vaccine. And, you know, my mask was filled with tears,” Munoz said. “I realized that every single shot you’re giving is a drop of hope. It’s going to change the trajectory of this pandemic. That moment made my day.”


It was her third deployment during the first 12 months of the COVID pandemic. After she left Dover, Munoz traveled to Albany, N.Y., where she continued to administer vaccines. There was a steady crowd, and staff backed up one another, providing extra hands to maintain a high pace.


At the end of the day, Munoz realized sometimes there were unused doses of vaccines. She suggested a standby vaccination list so people could get their shots when vaccine became available. The list was adopted, and even more people were getting vaccines, Munoz said.


Unlike other deployments, there was an unmistakable excitement in the vaccine line.


“A lot of the deployments that servicemembers go on, they’re different because the people are afraid or they’re very stressed. It’s usually a very uncertain atmosphere when you deploy to an emergency of any sort,” she said. “But ... this one is different. … There was such a sense of hopefulness and gratefulness that you could really feel.”


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About the Author

Amanda Dolasinski
Amanda Dolasinski

Dolasinski is a former staff writer at MOAA.