Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Connecticut Military Department has been at the forefront of the state’s efforts to quell the outbreak of the virus. From receiving, organizing, and distributing equipment to constructing test kits and establishing mobile field hospitals, these Soldiers, Airmen, and Militia Members have worked tirelessly alongside various state agencies to ensure those on the front line have the materiel they need to succeed in their battle against this invisible enemy.
At the beginning of the outbreak, when very little was known about the virus or how it spread, temperature checks and health questionnaires became a requirement for entry at all Connecticut National Guard facilities. As time rolled on and the number of positive cases, hospitalizations, and virus-related deaths continued to climb throughout the state, the Guard’s joint headquarters implemented a plan to split the organization into two duty locations for continuity of operations, telework was authorized, and units’ monthly drill weekends were either canceled or held virtually.
Now, because of the combined efforts of the Guardsmen who were activated in response to COVID-19, the state’s agencies, and the community’s willingness to adhere to safety measures emplaced by the state’s government, Connecticut has some of the lowest rates of infection, deaths, and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus in the nation.
But the threat isn’t over.
With so many Guardsmen in the fight and the pandemic stretching into summer – the National Guard’s annual training season – the state’s military leadership knew a proactive stance was required against complacency and implement additional safety measures to ensure the protection of their troops, their families, and their communities.
To achieve this goal, the Connecticut National Guard’s Task Force Surgeon, led by Lt. Col. Christopher Chabot, had an idea: give every Soldier and Airman going on annual training orders a COVID-19 test.
We looked at the data to see what we needed to do in order to safely go back to drill or AT, said Chabot, and testing each Guardsmen was a part of that.
“We’re doing two types of testing,” said Chabot. “Right when this started and we didn’t know the prevalence of COVID in the community … we asked people to participate in an antibody test that was being conducted through Yale University and, through that program, we’ve done quantitative antibody testing on 1,300 Connecticut Guardsmen.”
As a diverse collection of people who hail from all regions of the state and different environmental backgrounds, the Connecticut National Guard is an ideal community for the antibody test. With samples from these Guardsmen, scientists can better study how the virus spreads, any potential risk factors for infection, and identify neutralizing antibodies that could be used to help determine immunity.
The second type of testing the Guard is conducting is what’s called “polymerase chain reaction tests” or PCR tests, which are the same kind of tests hospitals and testing sites use to determine whether or not someone is currently infected with the virus.
“The Soldier has a couple of options [if they test positive],” said Chabot. “They can go into quarantine isolation and be released for an alternate annual training and the unit, if they have concerns about close contact with the Soldier, can request additional testing but they’ll also be a part of the contact tracing program.”
Otherwise, if a service member tests positive but also had a positive result on the antibody test, a medical team will re-evaluate the situation to see if the PCR test gave a false result due to the increased antibody count. If this is the case, the Soldier or Airman will be released back to his or her unit to continue training.
To assist with contact tracing, a process to identify those infected with the virus, anyone they may have come in contact with, and help prevent additional spreading of the virus, the Connecticut National Guard established a team of medical personnel who completed specialized contact tracing training from Johns Hopkins University.
Once a service member tests positive for COVID-19, this team initiates a process to identify those in the closest contact with the infected individual to determine whether or not additional testing may be required.
The entire process, from testing to assessing positive cases, has allowed commanders to make better decisions that impact the health and readiness of their troops. For the Connecticut National Guard, this is exceptionally important to not only protect their personnel still active in the fight against the coronavirus and their traditional guardsmen drilling on a monthly basis, but to maintain the personnel strength necessary to complete its federal mission. Over the next year, more than 1,000 Connecticut Guardsmen are scheduled to deploy in support of contingency operations around the world.
While many units adapt their training to incorporate social distancing and other force health protection measures, much of the training necessary to prepare mobilizing troops requires a certain level of unavoidable close proximity and physical contact. However, with mandatory testing built into the beginning and conclusion of each unit’s block of annual training, the threat of exposure is minimized.
To date, the current Department of Defense policy doesn’t require widespread testing of troops, but Connecticut isn’t alone in adding this additional proactive measure to better protect its troops. Chabot is in daily contact with leaders from other states in the region to discuss testing and some of the hardest-hit states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, have also incorporated widespread testing into their standard operating procedures.
As the summer rolls on, the addition of testing Guardsmen has had positive results, said Chabot. Of the few service members who have tested positive for COVID-19, it was determined that the infection was caused by community transmission and not from within the ranks of the organization. So, by isolating these cases, overall infection rates among the Connecticut National Guard remain low and each Soldier and Airman is able to complete the training they need to remain prepared to answer the call of duty, either here at home or abroad.