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Guard helps medical professionals combat COVID-19

Tech. Sgt. Alex Morhead, with the West Virginia Air National Guard’s 167th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, answers a call at the West Virginia Poison Center in Charleston, West Virginia. From staffing phone banks to administering tests for COVID-19, many of the more than 9,000 National Guard members on duty throughout the country in response to COVID-19 are helping state and local medical professionals.

Tech. Sgt. Alex Morhead with the West Virginia Air National Guard’s 167th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, answers a call at the West Virginia Poison Center in Charleston, W.Va. March 19, 2020. From staffing phone banks to administering tests for COVID-19, many of the more than 9,000 National Guard members on duty throughout the country in response to COVID-19 are helping state and local medical professionals. (Air National Guard courtesy photo)

ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --

From staffing informational phone banks to administering tests for COVID-19, many of the more than 9,000 National Guard members on duty in response to COVID-19 are assisting state and local medical professionals.

"Medical providers are essential to the hospitals where they work," said Air Force Col. Martin Bain, a Nevada National Guard air surgeon, adding that Guard members aid the impact those civilian medical professionals can make in response to the virus.

For members of the Arkansas and West Virginia National Guard, that support has meant answering calls at medical information lines run by health officials in their local areas.

Army Lt. Col. John Snedegar, the West Virginia National Guard's Office of the State Surgeon medical training officer, said a high influx of calls at a local poison control center prompted the need for Guard members to step in and help.

"We help people who have concerns, who are nervous or scared and uncertain about particular things," Snedegar said. "So we give them solid advice and help answer questions if they have signs and symptoms of the (virus) or what to do if they are exposed."

Meanwhile, medics with the Arkansas Army National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team have been answering phones at the Arkansas Department of Health Call Center, which faced a similar increase in call volume.

Those medics have been answering close to 800 calls per day on average, said Arkansas Guard officials.

Guard units have also been working with civilian authorities to administer COVID-19 screenings in numerous states. That includes Louisiana, where more than 100 Soldiers and Airmen with the Louisiana National Guard have been working at drive-through testing sites.

"Our goal is to become more efficient to reduce wait times for people being tested," said Army Col. Scott Desormeaux, the Louisiana Army National Guard's 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team commander.

In Westchester County, New York, which has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country, Soldiers with the New York Army National Guard have also been staffing testing centers in addition to setting up tents to augment area hospitals facing space shortages from COVID-19 response efforts.

For Army Pvt. Cindy Ganesh, with the New York Army National Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 369th Sustainment Brigade, helping set up tents was one of several missions she's worked on in response to COVID-19.

"We're all in this together," Ganesh said, "so it's good to be working on different missions."

Soldiers with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard helped the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency establish the first mass COVID-19 testing site in that state. The Soldiers tested and set up medical equipment and organized personal protective gear to help get the test center up and running.

"The National Guard has skilled professionals who are trained and experienced in conducting operations under challenging conditions," said Army Col. Frank Montgomery, the Pennsylvania National Guard director of military support.

Members of the Maryland Air National Guard have been sorting and loading onto trucks medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile, a national supply of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment for use in public health emergencies.

"Today we are taking supplies, such as gowns and gloves and the things that health departments, hospitals, long-term care facilities, dialysis centers, nursing homes and emergency medical services around the state (use) that are in short supply," said Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Malloy, a ground transportation specialist with the Maryland Air Guard's 175th Wing.

Assisting those medical professionals and the community is a fundamental element for many Guard members.

"I think this is why we joined the military and why we're part of the National Guard," said Army Capt. Heather Schaller, a nurse with the Wisconsin Army National Guard's medical detachment.

Schaller is among a team of Wisconsin National Guard medical personnel supporting staff at a senior living facility.

"A lot of citizens don't know the National Guard does stuff like this, so that is kind of an eye-opener (for many at the facility) too," she said.

For Air Force 1st Lt. Sparkle McCuiston, a nurse with the Nevada Air National Guard's 152nd Medical Group and an infectious disease nurse practitioner in her civilian job, support often comes down to providing reassurance.

"I've gotten so many calls from friends and family who are scared," McCuiston said. "I've tried to calm them down and tell them we need to get through this."

And getting through the COVID-19 outbreak can be done by following simple protocols, she said.

"If you are healthy and have minor symptoms, please don't go to urgent care. Please self-quarantine," McCuiston said, adding that hand washing and practicing social distancing are also key.

As of Tuesday, more than 9,000 Guard members are on duty in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.

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