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Summary of the Polar Physical Qualification Process in Response to Changing COVID-19 Dynamics

November 10, 2022

The National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP) promotes creative and innovative scientific research, engineering, and education in and about the polar regions. To accomplish this, prior to the pandemic, OPP deployed a total of over 2000 persons each year, to the Antarctic and Arctic regions.   During the pandemic far fewer deployed, though throughout the 2022-2023 season the numbers will begin to approach the pre-Covid levels.

The Polar regions are among the coldest, windiest, and emptiest places on earth. To protect both the individuals deploying and the overall mission, it is critical that persons are healthy and medically fit for deployment. In response to this need, 45 CFR 675 outlines a medical clearance process for deployment to Antarctica, with those going to the most isolated parts of the Arctic following the same process. The regulation 45 CFR 675 states, “Medical screening examinations are necessary to determine the presence of any physical or psychological conditions that would threaten the health or safety of the candidate or other USAP participants or that could not be effectively treated by the limited medical care capabilities…” 

To meet the requirements of this section, OPP has developed a comprehensive process to determine whether each candidate is physically qualified (PQ) or not physically qualified (NPQ) to deploy. To assist in this function, shortly after NSF assumed management responsibility for the U.S. Antarctic stations from the U.S. Navy, OPP established a Medical Review Panel (MRP) to provide advice and counsel. The MRP is an outside advisory group of health care professionals, experts in a range of disciplines, and familiar with the medical needs of the Polar research and support programs. Among the tasks of the MRP is to collaborate with OPP in continually updating the medical screening guidelines.  

In 2020, OPP moved quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the continued health and safety of all deployed personnel. In addition to modifying processes and procedures to assure the safety of those deploying (testing, quarantine, use of chartered flights, vaccinations, etc.) the medical screening guidelines were temporarily amended. Using guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including risk factors for severe COVID-19 infections (including hospitalization and death), key risk factors were incorporated, as practical and appropriate, into the medical screening guidelines. These temporary modifications have been regularly updated, through consultation with the MRP as more has become known about the disease and its transmission. As with all of the guidelines, candidates receiving an NPQ are allowed to apply for a waiver, and based on both the overall medical risks to the individual, as well as the operational needs and medical risks to the station, OPP approves or denies the waiver request.

In anticipation of the 2022-2023 season, OPP is working to return polar research back to pre-COVID levels. Based on the current situation, some of the mitigations in place in past pandemic years, may no longer be necessary, such as the use of charter planes and extensive quarantine periods.

Reinstatement of Two-Year PQ process

In an effort to simplify the PQ process for the healthiest of those deploying repeatedly, again with coordination of the MRP, OPP has re-established and expanded the Two-year PQ process. This process had been suspended due to the pandemic. The Two-year PQ process grants a 2-year PQ to persons meeting specific criteria, so that during the second year the candidate follows an abbreviated deployment medical clearance process.

Special Consideration for 2022 WINFLY

To continue to ensure the safety of those deploying, the PQ guidelines have been modified for the 2022 WINFLY season. During WINFLY there are no scheduled flights that could be used to medevac deployed personnel should that be needed, and the weather often prevents immediate evacuation with emergent flights. As a result, PQ guidelines for those deploying during WINFLY are more stringent. Also, it should be noted that, as with the regular PQ/NPQ process, a candidate who is NPQ’d due to the WINFLY or other COVID-19 criteria may apply for a waiver.   

Next Steps

In summary, OPP remains responsive to the requirements of 45 CFR 675 and has established a process to assure that those deploying to the Antarctic, and more isolated regions of the Arctic, are physically qualified. The processes developed include medical screening guidelines, which are continually reviewed and updated in collaboration with the outside independent Medical Review Panel, with final approval by the Director, Office of Polar Programs. The process includes the opportunity for an applicant deemed not qualified to request a waiver, which if approved, would allow deployment. 

The overall PQ process is meant to assure that a person’s health status is consistent with deployment to an isolated environment distant (in time and place) from comprehensive medical services. The priority is always the health and safety of the individual and other participants, while ensuring the overall NSF mission can be achieved.  

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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