Local pharmacist deployed to help Princess ship passengers

Rachelle Simmons, fifth from the right, was deployed in March with the National Disaster Medical System to help with COVID-19 testing to Grand Princess cruise ship passengers. The picture shows the “swab team” including a doctor, respiratory therapist, epidemiology, paramedic, IT, chaplain, etc. who are from all over the country including Minnesota, Maryland, Virginia, DC, Connecticut and two from Texas.

By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News

Rachelle Simmons was deployed in mid March with the National Disaster Medical System to help give COVID-19 tests to Grand Princess cruise ship passengers, who were quarantined at Travis Air Force Base.

A month ago, the Steiner Ranch resident and a pharmacist with St. David’s Healthcare arrived at Travis AFB in Fairfield, Calif. where 900 of the 1,103 passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship were being quarantined. 

“I was part of the swab team where we prepared, organized, labeled and offered the nasopharyngeal COVID 19 swab test to the 900 passengers who were then quarantined on the base,” Simmons said.

USA TODAY reported on March 25 that the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that two ship passengers died due to complications from the coronavirus. Both in their early 60s, were passengers on the Grand Princess cruise. One died March 21 and the other, two days later. Additionally, 103 passengers tested positive with COVID-19.

Simmons was deployed on March 13 for two weeks with her National Disaster Medical System team, which is under HHS. These teams are staffed with medical professionals who are on call certain months of the year to deploy during emergencies including disease outbreaks. 

“Our primary goal is to provide medical care and support when it is needed most,” said Simmons, who says it is an honor to serve and who also made herself available to be on call this month. 

Her job at St. David’s is protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act. Additionally, her husband, Michael, is supportive and proud of her service and even her dog, Asti, seems to cheer her on, she said. 

“I was appointed into the NDMS in February 2019 and received my first deployment due to the coronavirus,” she said. “It was quite an experience seeing and providing services to the quarantined guests.” 

Simmons answered a few more Four Points News questions about her 14-day deployment in this Q&A. 

1) In your first deployment, can you describe how it felt to be part of the team to help those in quarantine?  

 As my first deployment  I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen or what I was going to be doing. I was on call for the month of March and so on March 12th my “orders” came, my airplane flights arranged and I’d be leaving within 24hrs. We are trained to always have our bags packed for deployment. We may be staying in a field, tent, park, hotel or a sleeping bag in the open, each deployment is different disaster/circumstances.

I can’t explain the excitement, eagerness  and anxiousness I felt as I left Austin-Bergstrom airport headed to Sacramento, California, enroute to Travis AFB. Such an intense desire to serve fueled me and I was ready to help however needed. 

The cruise ship passengers had already been removed from the ship and had already been living in their assigned quarantined living arrangements. Most expressed their “gratitude” for us being there,  they were friendly, and appreciated the offer of the COVID 19 test. 

Many had kind words to us, I could certainly feel their “appreciation” of our services. Some were not, they just wanted to be home, back with family and friends, some didn’t want the  COVID 19 test, they just wanted to be home, and for their unbelievable horrible cruise ship endeavor to be over and back to life as they “thought” it was at home. 

But out in the real world, outside of Travis AFB, life and things were changing minute by minute all over the world. I remember seeing CNN during my lunch break  one day and we were all shocked that 149 people in the U.S. had already died from coronavirus… 149.. and now (April 15) the number is nearly 28,000… it’s unbelievable, unreal, to process … the day to day changes…  and deaths that keep occurring.

2) Any other big observations and/or realizations during this deployment?

The total amount of PPE/personal protective equipment needed each day by so many people. The quarantined passengers had to be fed three times a day, temperatures taken twice a day, and they also had to have on PPE, in addition there are cleaning crews, medical crews, repair crews, laundry crews, delivery crews, etc. with several shifts daily — everyone entering the building had to have on PPE, each and every time you’d enter the building.  It adds up… it is a lot, and not just at Travis AFB, but at every base that was quarantining folks. We are not even talking about the needs at hospitals all over the world!

3) What drew you to be a part of the National Disaster Medical System?

I remember watching Hurricane Katrina and all the devastation. I begin praying to be able to use my pharmacy skills to help those in/after a disaster. We had nine people from Katrina at our small house in South Austin and that was the start of my desire to continue helping in disastrous times.

4) Please share anything else about being on the front lines of the pandemic?

Me being on the front lines as a member of NDMS and serving on the swab team was just a matter of God using me to serve at such a time as this!

5) In your job as a pharmacist at St. David’s, have you seen a difference over the past month as it relates to COVID-19 and the various orders we are under? 

Since being deployed and returning back to St. David’s, there are now interim Adult Treatment Guidance we must read, review and become familiar with. 

Pharmacists assist in monitoring clinical changes in our patients, including watching renal and hepatic functions for necessary medication  dosage adjustments, watching for drug drug interactions, watching for medications that should be discontinued given a medication started due to change in vital organ function. We also review microbiology, imaging and laboratory values because things can change so fast in COVID-19 patients. 

The infectious disease physicians all over the world are in a very difficult space these days — working around the clock, grasping for any clinical trial results, reading medical literature from cases all around the world, studying and reviewing treatments/procedures/ protocols/ medications like never before for a virus that still has so many “unknowns,” treating no two patients alike, and yet trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus and not catch it themselves. ….and because of this, there are “changes/differences” daily!

Our infectious disease physicians and ICU teams are doing an amazing job with very good outcomes.

Rachelle Simmons was deployed to Travis Air Force Base in California in mid March with the National Disaster Medical System.
Service dog Esty belonged to a Grand Princess passenger who was partial blind. “We had to take Esty’s temperature everyday. All the passengers temperatures were taken twice daily throughout the quarantine,” said Rachelle Simmons of Steiner Ranch.