Rapid Medical Mobilization for COVID-19 Testing, Vaccination and Other Critical Relief Efforts

Quick-response mobile, customizable containers, trailers and vehicles are offering medical professionals new tools to combat not only the pandemic, but also other urgent healthcare issues.

In addition to new vaccines and tests, the battle against COVID-19 has another effective tool to deploy: quick response, mobile and customizable containers, trailers and vehicles that can be configured into labs, vaccination clinics and essentially whatever is required for effective treatment on the front lines. Afterwards, they must be able to be repeatedly moved to successive crisis points.

One example is the Athena Mobile Laboratory, a state-of-the-art, rapidly deployable mobile lab housed in a customizable container structure. Athena Mobile Laboratory is already being utilized in several U.S. Department of Defense facilities for COVID-19 testing of military service members and support staff, according to Christopher Hollars, Ph.D., director of Emerging Technical Solutions at MRIGlobal, a non-profit, world leader in technology and science. The mobile labs used for COVID-19 testing are typically equipped with diagnostic instrumentation and a biological safety cabinet that protects the analyst whenever the sample is exposed, notes Hollars. In addition, a safety shower and eye wash station were installed to mitigate incidental exposure.

While the mobile lab was readily adapted to COVID-19 testing and safety protocols, it was actually developed before the pandemic by MRIGlobal in partnership with St. Charles, Missouri-based Craftsmen Industries, a rapid designer and fabricator of mobile, containerized units for temporary or permanent use. Since 1982, Craftsmen has fabricated mobile units for organizations such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Verizon, Dell and AmerenUE, along with dozens of others.

Prior to the pandemic, the mobile labs have been used for a variety of testing applications, including CBRNE and forensics laboratory space. An earlier version was utilized for Ebola diagnostics testing in rural West Africa and are still in operation, according to Hollars.

Today, each COVID-19 mobile lab is built with design advancements identified by MRIGlobal, which has over 15 years of experience with mobile medical and defense technology. However, the final design is still completely customizable for highly specialized purposes.

One advantage of the Athena Mobile lab design is its shipping and space efficiency. The structure is designed to remain condensed during transportation, keeping in line with ISO shipping regulations. It easily loads on and off trailers, ships, railcars and airplanes, enabling organizations to rapidly deploy across the globe while reducing shipping cost. Onsite, an 18-foot section expands to provide 82 percent more floor space and 42 percent more work bench space over non-expanding designs.

Inside the mobile lab container, other aspects are designed to enhance safety, reliability, efficiency, and operator comfort. The floor is sealed and completely flat with hidden cargo tie-downs throughout. The walls are load bearing to eliminate the need for bulky table legs so technicians can move freely and reconfigure workspaces.

Access to power is designed to be a non-issue because the mobile lab is equipped with an electrical system that meets both international and domestic standards (U.S. 208/120V, 60 Hz or European 400/230V, 50 Hz) and has an uninterruptable backup battery system in case of power failure.

To help technicians function long hours in inhospitable environments, a scalable HVAC system maintains a comfortable air temperature and a dimmable LED system provides lighting control according to need. “The scalable, skid-mounted HVAC system we developed in collaboration with Craftsmen Industries connects to the lab through ducting that allows you to use essentially any size of commercially available HVAC unit and to use multiple units, so you can customize it to the intended worksite,” explains Hollars.

Despite the sophistication of the mobile labs, new units can be completed from start to finish in as little as eight weeks, with nearly finished in-stock labs completed in about two weeks, says Hollars. Perhaps the prime reason that such a customized structure can be tailored to meet specific healthcare requirements is that Craftsmen offers in-house design, engineering and fabrication, which can cut traditional delivery time in half.

Because the firm—which is ISO 9001: 2015 certified and fabricates with a wide variety of materials including carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum and alloys—is not only an integrator but also a fabricator with full engineering capabilities. This helps to resolve any issues that can occur at the drawing board as well as any difficulties that occur on the fly.

“In designing the mobile lab interior, we have to consider many factors such as desired sample capacity and instrument workflow, as well as required power, ethernet drops and counter space,” says Hollars. “After developing the requirements, we rely on Craftsmen for expert fabrication of the required structures. We get it from them like the base model of a car and add the needed equipment and options specific to the task.”

With the growing list of COVID-19 vaccines approved for FDA emergency use, Hollars understands the value offered in customizable mobile container designs that can be configured to serve as a rapidly deployable vaccination clinic wherever needed.

“With COVID-19 vaccination needing to reach hundreds of millions of Americans, a rapid response mobile unit operating as a clinic could be located in the parking lot of healthcare facilities to add surge capacity, or brought to any hot spot or remote underserved area,” says Hollars.

When such a surge in demand occurs along with a compressed delivery timeline, Hollars acknowledges the need to partner with an established construction firm able to quickly ramp up production.

“MRI Global is not outfitted as a large-scale fabrication facility. For that, we rely on Craftsmen, which specializes in quickly producing custom mobile structures, trailers and vehicles in volume,” says Hollars.

In fact, Craftsmen manufactures a wide range of custom mobile medical trailers, which are outfitted to improve access to medical care with equipment such as MRI, PET, CT, x-ray, audiology and even surgical facilities. These units offer hundreds of square feet of medical grade interior space, configured as required, and slide-outs can increase available space to 1,000 square feet. The trailer can include a patient screening area, reception area, exam room, operating room and/or scrub room. Such mobile medical trailers can be used as fully functional hospitals in under eight hours.

In the same way, vehicles can be custom configured for uses such as blood mobiles and mobile hospitals/emergency centers, as well as medical, dental and sports medicine clinics. A similar approach can also be used to provide emergency disaster relief as well as environmental testing, power, filtration and clean water after hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, etc. if configured to do so.

“After natural disasters, existing infrastructure can be damaged or compromised,” says Hollars. “So, a quick response unit that can provide necessary testing, healthcare and disaster aid in various forms could be useful to FEMA, states and municipalities as well as relief organizations,” says Hollars. He notes that such units can be designed to provide decades of potential use, so they can be reconfigured and repurposed if its original use is no longer necessary.

While medical professionals have primarily utilized fixed healthcare infrastructure, the urgent need to provide testing, vaccination and other services when pandemics or disasters strike make mobile and surge capacity more important than ever.

For this reason, it is crucial that healthcare and civic administrators investigate the possibility of using quick-response mobile, customizable containers, trailers and vehicles to safely meet medical and emergency relief demands wherever and whenever the need arises.

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