ST. GEORGE, Utah – For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, Utah National Guard members are providing direct hospital support in non-medical roles.
Service members are transporting patients and performing food and housekeeping duties at St. George Regional Hospital. As part of the COVID-19 Joint Task Force, 17 service members arrived to help in Southern Utah Feb. 8.
St. George Regional Hospital and the Southern Utah Veterans Home requested support from the Utah Department of Health because of staffing shortages as the spread of the omicron variant caused a surge in COVID-19 cases.
"The state has requested our help down here, and so that's why we are down here supporting them and supporting the hospital," said Sgt. Bracken McKinlay, one of the Utah National Guard Soldiers assigned to work at the hospital.
"(Intermountain Healthcare) reached out to ask if the Guard could help support some of the staff shortages the hospital is seeing as they have staff members out with COVID or if they've left the health care system because of the hard work they've done over the last two years," said Lt. Col Erick Wiedmeier, commander of the Utah National Guard COVID-19 Joint Task Force.
The health care community has been on the front lines for more than two years dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. With the demanding shift schedule, workers getting sick, people leaving the health care profession, and staffing shortages, both care centers and hospitals have been losing employees and not finding people to replace them.
"It's just been a struggle to hire. It's been really hard for the last two years under COVID to be in health care. It's a difficult time," said Mark Evans, St. George Regional Hospital's operations officer.
Not only are doctors and nurses getting burned out from the pandemic, but there is also a shortage of support personnel who help keep the hospitals and care centers operating. Guard members will help prepare hundreds of meals each day for patients and staff, clean patient rooms and help in the lab.
"All the areas of a hospital that you don't really think about that need to have workers and things happen to make a hospital run," Evans said. "We've had nurses helping out — taking out garbage for a little while instead of having their whole focus on our patients, and that's where we want to be."
The personnel shortage has forced the hospital to be innovative to keep operations moving.
"We're trying to be as creative as we can, but this will help them continue and actually keep doing the things that go that extra mile for our caregivers who are working so hard," added Evans.
National Guard members said it was an honor to help.
"At first, it's a little daunting not having any medical experience, but after the training, it was a pretty proud moment to be able to know that if needed, we could help in the facilities that we were being asked to help in," said McKinlay.
The Guard members will work in Southern Utah for two weeks, but that time can be extended.
"If the service members are able to stay on mission and the hospital still needs our support, then we can stay longer," Wiedmeier said.
Evans said the Guard's assistance means a lot to the hospital.
"It means that people care, and people listen, and they see the struggle that our caregivers have gone through," he said.
"It makes a huge difference to know that we're not forgotten, and our teams are not forgotten," Evans added. "We're extremely grateful for this opportunity to partner with the Guard. Our staff is excited to have them here."
Kevin McCulley of the Utah Department of Health called the Guard's help invaluable.
"Early in the response, the Utah Guard was instrumental in the activation of our alternate care site at the Mountain America Expo Center, and now we rely on them for the first deployment into one of Utah's hospitals," McCulley said.
Wiedmeier said all the Guard members are fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
"The Utah Guard and the service members that we have here are honored to be part of the community and to support the community in their time of need," said Wiedmeier.
"Health care providers and workers at the hospital have been doing the majority of the work for two long years and are really the unsung heroes of (the) COVID pandemic. For the Guard to be able to step in and support and alleviate some of the strain and stress that has been caused by the pandemic is an honor."