CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia National Guard’s (WVNG) Task Force Medical is playing a key role fighting the COVID-19 outbreak in the state.
Shortly after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency March 16, Task Force Medical went to work. The task force now includes more than 70 WVNG Soldiers and Airmen providing planning, logistical and staffing support to state and local agencies around the Mountain State in two primary lines of effort: epidemiology/health data management and testing.
“Ultimately, we’ve been a force multiplier to assist and amplify what other agencies are doing that lack resources, manpower, or time, so we give another tier of resources,” said Air Force Lt. Col. John Wiles, the Task Force Medical commander.
The priority was to talk to state and local health officials to identify critical needs where the Guard could help.
“Building relationships and establishing our usefulness was critical,” said Wiles. “Our folks being able to integrate quickly and with knowledge to take some of the immediate planning and operational load stress off of agencies was an important part of ramping up and now in sustaining long-term response efforts.”
Those relationships created between Guard members and civilian agencies laid the foundation for the state’s collaborative response.
While other WVNG task forces concentrated on distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitization efforts, Task Force Medical got involved in epidemiology and health data management. It deployed people to each of the six West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (WVDHHR) surveillance regions to assist health departments in all 55 counties.
By streamlining the process, Task Force Medical increased the collection, analysis and charting of accurate, real-time epidemiological data, painting a picture of the impact of COVID-19 on the state. This data provided crucial awareness to state officials making public health safety decisions.
Once wide-scale COVID-19 testing began, Task Force Medical partnered with Task Force Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Response Enterprise (TF-CRE) and local county health departments to deploy Guard members around the state to high-risk facilities such as nursing homes, long-term care facilities and prisons. Testing support then shifted to testing lanes at medical facilities and other locations, including minority communities disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.
At test sites, Guard members helped control traffic, conduct tests and transport specimens to laboratories, and providing back-end logistical and operational support.
Test results were tracked by Task Force Medical personnel, and voluntary COVID-19 mapping efforts began.
“The overall goal is to get back to normal but to get there, we have to complete four steps,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Jayme Brooks-Dumproff, an epidemiologist assigned to Task Force Medical. “First, we have to test widely. Second, we have to isolate those positive cases hastily. Third, we have to do our best to track down the people that have come in contact with the positive cases. And lastly, we have to quarantine those contacts for 14 days, which is the amount of time the virus has to show up in a person.”
Task Force Medical actions have been instrumental in helping mitigate the impact of the pandemic, said Dr. Clay Marsh, the West Virginia coronavirus czar.
“The Guard truly has been the glue that holds everything together,” Marsh said. “The commitment to duty that the Guard has is the key ingredient to make our response in West Virginia work, and I know I could ask so many others, and they would say the same thing.”