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Local microbiologist helps keep troops safe from covid-19

by Laurinda Joenks | September 20, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.
Kent Estes, 69, a microbilogist and junior high science teacher, has been recalled by the Army . He’s working in a lab in Augusta, Ga., probably Fort Gordon, on covid, I think. It’s top secret, but we’ll figure it out.

The Army recalled Maj. Stuart Kent Estes last spring for another tour of duty.

The 70-year-old microbiologist now spends his days processing covid-19 tests of soldiers of the Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga.

"It's all about force protection," Estes said. "We're taking care of our force. If they are diagnosed, they are isolated. As a medical microbiologist, we are protecting our soldiers, and they are protecting our people.

"It's a good feeling knowing you're using your knowledge, your detective skills to help somebody," he said.

Estes, with home quarters in Benton County, also serves others in civilian life. He has taught science and math to Northwest Arkansas junior high students for 20-plus years. His current status is "on military leave" from his role as an instructional assistant at Lakeside Junior High School in Springdale.

"I always wanted to be a teacher," Estes said. "I went to college to be a teacher."

CAPPING A CAREER

Dealing with a deadly virus seems safer than his last duty in Afghanistan, Estes said.

"Well, nobody's tried to blow me up yet," he said.

Estes survived what has become a chronic injury to his back when an improvised explosive device exploded near him.

"The worst thing that could happen here is somebody could get sloppy," he said.

Estes transferred in 2004 into the Retired Reserve, which earned him more money in retirement, but also left him with a possible call to action for five years.

The Army recalled him in 2008 and sent him to Afghanistan for a year. His role there was community relations, for which he had no training.

"But it turned out to be kind of fun," he said.

The Army called again last spring.

"They put a call out for 14,000 people, and they picked 400," he said. "They requested a microbiologist. I guess they thought they needed me.

"And I said, 'Good, I've never been to Fort Gordon."

Because of his age, this duty was strictly voluntary, Estes said. He said his orders, which gave him two weeks to report, read like an invitation, he said. The orders were for six months, but the Army has since asked for another year.

"I told them I'd give them another six months," Estes said.

When finished with this duty, Estes will have served this country for 24 1/2 years, including two combat missions.

"When I get back, I think it will be time to shut it down," he continued.

NASTY BUG

Estes said he and his two fellow microbiologists in Georgia aren't working to make any groundbreaking discoveries about how to stop the coronavirus.

"But we can report trends we see over a month -- and changes in trends mean the virus has some mutations," he explained.

The military terms this "surveillance and reporting," he added.

For example, they have seen the virus get 10 times more infectious, but not 10 times more deadly, Estes said.

Covid-19 is an RNA virus, with ribonucleic acid as its genetic material, Estes said. The virus inserts its RNA to cells and replicates, quickly overtaking healthy cells.

Microbiologists look for the presence of the covid-19 RNA in the cell samples provided by patients. A reaction with chemicals added to the cells indicates the RNA -- and thus, the covid -- presence.

"We always double-check because a diagnosis can be a life-changer," Estes continued. "It's a physical and emotional illness."

"It's a bad week if you sit next to somebody who has it," he said. "It's stupid if you sit next to somebody who has it and you aren't wearing a mask."

The Army uses a similar test to that of the Arkansas Department of Health.

"Testing uses PCR (polymerase chain reaction)," explained Danyelle McNeill, a spokeswoman for the department. "This technology uses specific codes in the virus RNA and amplifies the RNA exponentially. The machine detects the amplified viral RNA by the use of dyes that are attached to the specific RNA codes."

The flu virus is also an RNA coronavirus and mutates more quickly, Estes warned.

"We have a fear, that if someone gets flu and covid at same time, the viruses will mingle, creating a new microbiological arrangement -- a new virus -- and it's going to be bad," he said.

He also recommended everyone get a flu shot by the end of October.

From Sept. 9 to Wednesday, the staff of the state Health Department laboratory in Little Rock averaged testing 2,200 samples a day, McNeill reported. Although samples for testing are taken locally, all are processed in the state lab, she said.

Security measures wouldn't allow Estes to release test numbers. He said the tests come not only from troops at Fort Gordon, but also from other stations. In addition to a teaching hospital, the base specializes in cyber activities.

The Health Department uses 13 staff biologists and a number of laboratory technicians for covid testing, according to McNeill. An additional eight technicians receive samples daily; four to six individuals work on data entry; two nurses report results and provide follow-up support; and three staff members provide support for the laboratory web portal to submit samples. And numerous other positions through the laboratory help with covid activities daily, she said.

Phone calls and email to the Fort Gordon public affairs office this week for comment weren't returned.

LIFELONG LEARNER

Estes thinks nothing from his classroom skills transfers to his military role, and he doubts he'll take anything back to the classroom.

"The knowledge gained while working, that's base knowledge. This information is perishable," he said.

In fact, he said, most soldiers develop the ability to put one assignment behind them so they can concentrate on the next task at hand.

Estes is acquiring new base knowledge in his current post.

When he left the field of microbiology, the technology of the electron microscope was just coming into play, he said. Now, Estes relies on this technology daily.

"This stuff is so exciting, so neat," he said with a bit of child-like glee in his voice.

Don Hoover, executive director of student services for the Bentonville School District, was a former principal and hired Estes as a teacher at both George Junior High School in Springdale and Lincoln Junior High School in Bentonville.

"When I had the opportunity to hire Mr. Estes, I did not hesitate to bring a veteran, a specialist in his science field, a student advocate and a good man to our school building. Mr. Estes made a difference immediately with his 'can do' attitude and his ability to mentor young people. He also won the hearts and respect of the staff with his integrity, hard work and servant leadership.

"I am always amazed that when our country has called upon him, regardless of his personal sacrifice, he goes," Hoover added.

"So many stories he can share with the students," said Michael Shepherd, principal of Lakeside. "He can show them that they can take their knowledge and put it into practical use.

"It's just amazing to have an educator -- that even in retirement -- missed being with the kids and watching the growth of the students," Shepherd continued.

A teaching job -- his first -- at Southwest Junior High School in Springdale brought the Louisiana native to Northwest Arkansas. It earned him $400 a month for 10 months, without insurance. His then-wife had some major medical issues.

He came from a military family, and he knew what that was about.

"I went into the Army to make some money," Estes said.

Laurinda Joenks can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWALaurinda.

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