Army Chemical and Biodefense Training Keeping It Real Despite Being Virtual

By Marisa Tuszl, Biodefense MS Student

As a second-year Biodefense Master’s student at George Mason University (GMU), I was initially interested in taking the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (MMCBC) course to broaden my knowledge of chemical and biological agents as well as learn about the processes for properly treating patients in a contaminated environment. The MMCBC course presented an opportunity to improve my understanding of what procedures are in place to assist the United States military during biological or chemical emergency situations as well as to learn about current and future medical countermeasures. Since I have an undergraduate degree in Forensic Chemistry, I found the lectures about various chemical agents and the different antidotes and decontamination procedures during field examinations fascinating.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) hosted a virtual version of MMCBC. The week-long program covered a variety of topics from the principles of decontamination and field management to infection control procedures and emerging medical countermeasures. The Army’s video capabilities allowed the live audience to be a part of the demonstrations in the USAMRICD facility and observe the process of casualty assessment and decontamination flow from the hot zone to the cold zone. Another highlight of the training was a triage assessment exercise that gave the participants the opportunity to virtually diagnose and manage the care of a patient infected with an unknown biological agent in real-time. While I was initially concerned that I would be missing out by being limited to a virtual course, MMCBC was a remarkable experience that allowed me to learn from the military’s top experts in the fields of chemical and biological defense.

My favorite part of the course was during day two of the chemical section. Dr. James Madsen (COL, Ret.) opened the day with a chipper demeanor that had the audience eager for his lecture on nerve agents and pretreatment. While Dr. Madsen explained that this was an in-depth presentation on the subject matter, he used helpful symbols, such as orange Pacman, green dots, blue diamonds, pink diamonds, and crowbars, to visually represent how the peripheral nervous system reacts to nerve agents, what ensues in the body during the exposure to these chemicals, and how the antidotes can combat the effects of nerve agents. Thanks to his presentation style, the intense subject matter of the processes going on throughout the human body following exposure to a nerve agent were easily understood. Furthermore, his lecture helped convey more clearly what consequences occur to various parts of the body from these organophosphorus compounds. Beyond the physical signs and symptoms that can be assessed and treated, Dr. Madsen explained how one can intervene before exposure with prophylaxis or pretreatments and after exposure with reactive skin decontamination lotion (RSDL) and thorough decontamination procedures. The information provided by this presentation was insightful and highlighted how observant medical professionals and military personnel must be to identify the correct chemical agent in order to deploy the appropriate countermeasure and prevent additional exposures.

All in all, the MMCBC program supplied me with an outstanding educational experience to learn about chemical and biological defenses and how military and civilian personnel should be prepared to handle chemical and biological incidents. This course was beneficial in providing myself and the other participants with the tools and guidance on how to identify the symptoms of different chemical and biological agents, provide the appropriate decontamination and medical care, and evaluate the available treatments or antidotes. In addition to this course, individuals can take other courses by USAMRIID and USAMRICD such as Field Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (FCBC) and Hospital Management of Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear & Explosive (HM-CBRNE) Incidents.  I look forward to learning even more from USAMRIID and USAMRICD experts during the virtual HM-CBRNE course in January and eventually FCBC once in-person courses resume.

Marisa Tuszl is working towards her Master’s in Biodefense at George Mason University. She was a forensic chemist for three years after graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 2016. Her interests include weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and healthcare response/resilience.

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