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This Military Spouse Scientist Can Help You Deal with COVID

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Amber Schmidke has a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology. She's worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a microbiologist, taught microbiology at the collegiate level and served as a technical consultant for the Georgia COVID-19 Data State Task Force.

She's also an Air Force spouse.

It's those credentials that give her the insight to understand not only the pandemic, but how it impacts military families in particular. Now, after a job at a new duty station didn't pan out thanks to pandemic-fueled staffing cuts, she's pivoted her career to be a science writer and podcaster, hosting "Public Health for the People" from her new home at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. And she's offering military families advice on how to get through COVID-19.

"We should prepare for this as a marathon and not a sprint," Schmidke said. "We don't know how long immunity lasts after a naturally occurring infection, and we are seeing situations where people are infected with a genetically distinct virus."

Schmidke predicts that we'll be wearing masks and social distancing through Christmas 2021. Even though there may be a successful candidate vaccine by the end of the year, it may not be available until next summer, and it's still going to take a while to vaccinate enough people to achieve that "herd immunity" status.

So what does this mean for military families in particular?

"It's important to remember that the public health guidance we've been given are meant to be used together," she said. "Imagine each guidance is a piece of swiss cheese. If you layer them, you have a better chance of not having any holes."

When the question of sports and indoor activities comes up, as it will with the weather changing, Schmidtke has things for parents to consider.

"Prioritize outdoor sports and any sport that doesn't involve personal contact," she said. "Outdoors is always better than indoors because of the better airflow and ventilation. The UV light outside is damaging to the genetic material of the virus."

As parents, we know that our teenagers are going to come back with, "But the NBA is playing basketball."

She has an answer for that too.

"The NBA has been successful with playing because of frequent testing and having a 'bubble.' That's simply not available for all K-12 children," she said.

The bottom line is this: When people gather, they don't just share the exposure of that group of people, they share the exposure of all the individuals those people have been in contact with as well. The risk accumulates over time, Schmidtke said.

And to combat that risk, she thinks the military community is the best-prepared out there.

"Remember that as a military family, we know what it is to serve others before ourselves. We've been doing it all along, and this is a situation where we're called to look out for our community ahead of ourselves. It's hard, but we are equipped to do it," she said.

Schmidtke thinks the military is doing a good job with mitigating the risks and said she's very impressed by their focus on using data to drive decision-making. She understands the desire to deal with both the pandemic and national security threats but does wish there could be more transparency about where cases are occurring.

"As someone who lives on post, I would like to know how many cases are on this installation," she said.

Schmidtke has been analyzing and reporting on COVID-19 trends in Georgia and now in Kansas. She launched a podcast and, during one episode, she talks about moving during the pandemic.

"We self-isolated as much as possible through our move by using our camper -- something that isn't available to everyone, but worked for us," she said. "I'm probably a little more paranoid than most people because I'm deep in the research and literature of the disease."

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--Rebecca Alwine can be reached at rebecca.alwine@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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