United Against COVID-19: How Fletcher School Military Fellows Joined Forces with Tufts Medical Center

Last March, Fletcher School military fellows contributed their expertise to Tufts Medical Center’s fight against COVID-19
The Fletcher School military fellows deployed in March 2020 made an immediate—and a lasting—impact on Tufts Medical Center, according to Nick Duncan, director of emergency management. Video: Jenna Schad
March 8, 2021

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In mid-March last year, as part of President Monaco’s pledge to deploy Tufts’ resources to join the fight against COVID-19, the university enlisted the help of Fletcher School military fellows, graduate students, faculty, and staff to assist where they were needed.

The expectation was that, with their training and field experience with both military and civilian populations, the Fletcher military fellows could be helpful in setting up campus operations during the outbreak.  

But the beneficiaries of their help were not limited to members of the university community.  

Some members of Fletcher’s International Security Studies Program were asked to join the emergency operations teams at Tufts Medical Center. Their role was to be as volunteer advisors, leveraging, in service of the pandemic response, the skills that they had developed previously in crisis response situations, including in experiences in and adjacent to combat zones.  

Nick Duncan, Director of Emergency Management at Tufts Medical Center, was one of the people who experienced firsthand the application of the distinctive skills of these Fletcher community members to the medical center’s pandemic response.  

For our retrospective on the Tufts community's early response to the pandemic, Tufts Now spoke with Duncan about what it felt like for Tufts Medical Center to have the assistance of the Fletcher School military fellows last March during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Tufts Now: When did you first learn that the Fletcher military fellows were coming to Tufts Medical Center to help? 

Nick Duncan: In the middle of March, Dr. Mike Apkon [then-president and CEO of Tufts Medical Center] came to me and said, "Nick, I know you need help." I'm a department of two. So, we've had a really small team, but [I] was asked to be the second in charge of the whole response for Tufts Medical Center for COVID operations. And then that’s quickly expanded to overseeing some of the Wellforce operations, which is a multi-system hospital organization.  

So, I said, "Absolutely, I'd love to have some help… and bring them in." And then he told me that it was going to be the Fletcher School military fellows, and my eyes lit up. I came from a military background where I went to school, and I know how that works: You give an order, they take direction, and they make it happen. And that was something I was really looking forward to.  

Can you recall how you felt when they arrived? 

From the get-go, it was really interesting. I wore a suit back then—a suit and tie, a jacket every day—and they quickly changed that to a less formal dress code for us because we were working 15, 16 hours a day. They walked in, in jeans and sneakers, and I looked across the room and I go, "That guy's a colonel in the United States Army? What am I doing wrong here?" 

And I couldn't have been more kind of giddy to have them by my side. But from the get-go, it was "Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am. No, sir." And that really resonated with me because… I don't have to explain for an hour the background about what we're doing. I just gave them a task and let them run.  

And that was something that totally changed my world and allowed me to give a lot up for responsibility at the beginning when I was living here and only sleeping for two hours a day. So that was something that really alleviated a lot of the stress… [in doing what] was necessary to save as many lives as possible, which was the goal of spring of 2020.  

What was the problem you were facing and how did they solve it

What problem didn't they solve? They came in blind to anything that was happening here. And what was really happening here was we were going from something no healthcare system's ever seen before, which is COVID patients, and COVID staff, and switching COVID units, and COVID everything. But they actually helped with the little things, and that went—and has continued to—go a long way. [Things like] meeting structure, organizational bandwidth, leader span of control… those things that the military stresses in their organizational structure, which is, "I'm in charge of a huge band of people, but I actually split off my tasks and assign different ones to different people and get things done quicker, faster, and more efficiently."  

We know that the Fletcher military fellows played a critical role in establishing a multi-university team that salvaged several thousand N-95 masks in mid-March. What’s the back story on that? 

In early March, we were scrounging the hospital for masks that were N-95 quality. And in the old Emergency Management stockpile, we had found those masks that we looked at, and we're, like, "Wow, they're pretty beat up and pretty old." But they still had the filtration mechanism that we really needed to treat these COVID patients and keep our staff safe.  

So, the military fellow said, "Sure, let me see what I can do." And he came back to me the next day with five different elastic bands and said, "Which one do you like better?" And my first question was, "How fast can you get them?" And that kind of limited our options, and we ended up getting them two different ways (we had a true elastic band, and then an actual retractable one, which was able to be tightened around the staff member's head).  

So all of that worked out pretty quickly. But it was fascinating how I had a point person, I could go to her and say, "Where are we? Where are the masks? What are we doing with them?" And then she took everything else away from me, which was a huge help: The staffing component, the logistics of getting the staff to the campus, finding a classroom to do this work in a sterile space to do the work in, labeling them appropriately, making sure they are all QA-processed through the whole thing, and then delivering a product at the end that was done and delivered and not having to worry about any of the minutiae that goes along with doing tasks like that.  

What do the masks represent to you, in terms of their problem-solving abilities? What do we not know about that story? 

But the other thing that [the Fletcher military fellows] don't get enough credit for was bringing all the relationships they had already developed in their personal and professional lives to us here at the medical center. 

Peter [Fletcher Military Fellow Lt. Col. Peter Lee, United States Air Force], for instance, called MIT, and next thing we know, we had 100—and the next week 5,000—mask ear loop holders. So, they basically took the ear loops off the staffs' ears and put them behind their neck, and the red plastic pieces are still floating around the hospital, and everyone has one. 

And those are the things that the school doesn't get enough credit for. They went out of their way to make sure that we not only had masks that were rehabbed and made appropriate, but we also had the external relationships they had to lean on, to better ourselves… not only for the short term when they were all here and gung-ho, but now in the long-term, when they're all redeployed to their new duty stations, but we're still here at Tufts Medical Center, fighting the COVID battle.  

How long was the Fletcher military fellows’ engagement with the medical center? 

Some of the military fellows quickly transitioned to more of an offsite role, and that was actually super-helpful. We had some really, really smart military fellows working from home with our data team, to make sure that they were building tools—tools that we still use—to review the data and make sure we see up-to-date numbers in a moment's time.  

And then there was a group that stayed onsite. The last two actually left here in late June… Sue and Scott [Fletcher Military Fellows Lt. Col. Susan M. Gannon, United States Army Reserve, and Col. Scott B. Seidel, United States Army]. We became very close. We still talk to this day and converse about their current roles and what they're doing versus what's happening here, and what they think should be going on. And that's an interesting relationship. They're awesome people. They're all awesome people. They're also super-smart.  

As you reflect back on your experience with them, any final thoughts? 

Their impact was super-great at the beginning, and it really took us by storm and really changed us for the better, quickly. And then it has left a lasting imprint on our emergency management department and our leadership roles here at the medical center.  

Please visit Tufts Remembers March 2020 for more stories from our retrospective on the university’s early response to COVID-19.