It was only one year ago that the Nebraska National Guard kicked in on a statewide level to rescue citizens and livestock from the extreme floods of 2019. By mid-April last year, nearly 400 National Guard soldiers and airmen had served on statewide active duty on a total of 102 support air or ground missions during the disaster.
Some of these missions involved dramatic air rescues of people stranded by the floodwaters. Company B, 2-135th General Support Aviation Battalion even delivered hay bales to stranded cattle from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
Fast forward one year, and the Guard is at it again. But this spring, it has taken on an entirely new role, fighting against a unique and new enemy — COVID-19. By the first week of May, more than 400 Army and Air National Guard members had participated in active missions and collected in the tens of thousands of nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19 testing at mobile test sites in 29 communities in 26 counties across the state. And that is just the beginning of an ongoing mission throughout the first part of the year.
At Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts' daily press briefing May 6, Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, adjutant general for Nebraska, told reporters that the volunteers in the National Guard want to serve the citizens of Nebraska. “That’s why they joined the National Guard,” Bohac said. “It’s what we get to do.”
At the briefing, Ricketts noted the vital roles Guard soldiers have played. “As we ramp up testing, we must also ramp up contact tracing to make sure everyone who needs a hospital bed, an ICU bed or a ventilator is able to get one,” Ricketts said. “As we do more testing, we will see more people test positive. We can’t look at the number of cases we’re getting. That is not a constant over time, but it can be an indicator of a hot spot and can help with contact tracing.”
To bring widespread testing and contact tracing across the state so health restrictions can eventually be lifted, the National Guard has established six mobile testing teams, consisting of 18 people each, to spread out to communities across the state.
Bohac said that each team can collect 600 swabs in a day in a walk-through format, and 300 swabs a day in a drive-thru format. “These teams are amazingly flexible, and they are all volunteers,” Bohac said. “A typical testing team includes six medics, data entry and decontamination folks, as well as oversight team members.” Guard staff also are supporting two CHI Health Center test sites.
“What is unique about this assistance response from a National Guard perspective is typically, a lot of our responses fall under the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, and are usually some kind of natural disaster that a local emergency management agency is not able to handle,” says Lt. Col. Charles McWilliams, Joint Task Force Heartland Response commander.
“The COVID-19 assistance response is different because we are assisting the Department of Health and Human Services. Having said that, they both fall under the same governor and that is how to make the transition a lot smoother than what one would expect.”
The unknowns of the current situation are the biggest challenge. “There were a lot of unknowns, and we had to rely on and try to determine what we do know,” McWilliams continues. “We know how to do decontamination, for example, against chemical, biological, radiological and so forth.
"So, we can use what we are trained to do and use that as a starting point for decontaminating for someone who is wearing personal protective equipment for collecting a test sample for COVID-19. We try to incorporate and tie together all of the knowns so that we can decrease the unknowns as much as possible.”
Guard members have provided support by setting up accommodation and isolation projects that allow for COVID-19 patients to isolate from their families if necessary. With teams logging in excess of 21,000 miles by early May, they had already distributed almost 230,000 pounds of food to food banks and were continuing that mission.
In addition, the Nebraska National Guard (NENG) by early May had already distributed more than 1.6 million face masks and shields, and 2 million gloves, according to Bohac’s reporting in the governor’s May 6 news conference.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the men and women in our National Guard,” Ricketts said. “Last year, they did a lot of work around the flooding, with rescues that required flying in conditions that some of the soldiers said were worse than combat."
Because of the efforts of the Guard in urban areas and rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, testing and contact tracing can be used effectively, Ricketts noted. “From the early days of this crisis, we have always worked to slow it down so we can accommodate those who need hospitalization,” he said.
“If you look back to just a year ago in 2019, we had record flooding,” McWilliams says. “There just wasn’t enough time to mobilize large contracts to bring large elements of external resources into the state. So, the state relied on what they had immediate access to, and that was NENG.
"In this case, we have an unprecedented pandemic. The NENG has been able to assist local and state agencies by quickly setting up test sites needed or distributing PPE to local health department agencies across the state. NENG has been able to fill the void and supply that bridge from initial threat to long-term stability.”