Inside the Air Force Academy: How cadets are helping test for COVID-19

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U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY — For four days a week, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and faculty are under surveillance testing for COVID-19, making for nearly 200 samples a day. 

“We take the 200ish samples, we pull them into groups of eight and then they do RNA extractions on them, so we get all of the virus information. And then we actually use these machines right here to figure out if people have the virus in them or not,” said Maj. Erin Almand, assistant professor of biology at USAFA. 

It’s random testing, but they’er not just pulling names out of a hat.

“We try not to select more than one cadet from a room. And that’s because roommates, we’re assuming that roommates are probably going to share the same health status,” said Lt Col Chris Cullenbine, assistant professor of mathematics at USAFA. 

USAFA says creating that list is a group effort from the cadet wing, the biology department, and the mathematics department. 

“I would say in my 21 years In the Air Force, this is probably one of the most operational environments that I’ve been in, even though I’m at the Air Force Academy, this has been quite the experience,” Cullenbine said. 

Several cadets volunteeer their time to play a part in this process. 

“Some of them, they’re like, ‘hey, I will go and put the coolers down there in the morning to help you out. I will help you with the trash at the end of the day. So, they’re doing everything, it’s actually been super helpful for the faculty, because they’re just able to take on those little projects that are the ones that are time consuming and get overlooked,” Almand said. 

USAFA says staff handles the samples until it’s no longer infectious, then cadets get hands-on real world experience. 

“The techniques that we do, it’s something that they do in class once. Maybe if they’re in med school, they’ll see it again there, but they have no real like, ‘how do I use this? How do I take this technique and actually apply it?’ And this is one of the ways, especially an Air Force cadet, this is a way to operationalize biology. So, this is how you use biology to help the mission of the Air Force Academy,” Almand said. 

USAFA says they’ve been in touch with other local colleges to share their testing process and lessons learned. 

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