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Virginia Guard strike teams boost COVID-19 testing capacity

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assist with a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site run by the Virginia Department of Health Eastern Shore Health District May 8, 2020, at the Eastern Shore Community College in Melfa, Virginia. VNG sample strike teams are helping increase Virginia’s COVID-19 testing capacity at long-term care facilities and other locations.

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assist with a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site run by the Virginia Department of Health Eastern Shore Health District May 8, 2020, at the Eastern Shore Community College in Melfa, Virginia. VNG sample strike teams are helping increase Virginia’s COVID-19 testing capacity at long-term care facilities and other locations.

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are helping increase Virginia’s COVID-19 testing capacity at long-term care facilities with point prevalence sampling teams.

Led by the Richmond-based 34th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package, PPS “strike teams” are being deployed to long-term care facilities identified by the state as needing testing support.

Each strike team is comprised of four PPS teams, each with three people, who receive rigorous medical training on proper sample taking, sample handling and sanitation. Those teams train to go through a residential long-term care facility room by room to conduct a large number of tests quickly and safely.

Those PPS teams are supported by a command and control element and a decontamination element, a part of the process every bit as important as the actual sample taking.

“On that back end of the strike team, we have Soldiers and Airmen providing decontamination, to make sure we’re not bringing COVID out of the facility and potentially contaminating ourselves or the next facility,” said Maj. Andrew J. Czaplicki, the 34th CERFP’s deputy commander.

All components of the strike teams undergo training conducted by the 34th CERFP, making sure every member of each team is fully knowledgeable and ready to conduct the sensitive work. During training, teams practice moving through a facility, taking samples and performing proper sanitization and decontamination.

“They receive a very rigorous swab sample training provided by the Virginia Department of Health. We are then able to practice on each other using some expired test kits from other events,” said Czaplicki.

Collected samples receive proper storage and labeling before being transported to labs for testing.

The capability provided by the CERFP and the PPS strike teams has significantly boosted critical COVID-19 testing across Virginia, especially at vulnerable long-term care facilities. Since VNG testing missions began, they’ve collected 5,398 samples from more than a dozen facilities across the state.

“There’s a definite need for us,” said the deputy commander. “There’s a capacity level we’re trying to get to throughout the state, and there are some localities that need help. We’re here to offer that help, and be the good neighbor.”

“The National Guard regularly provides assistance in emergencies, and this is the greatest emergency that we have seen in many years,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam during a recent news conference. “I’m grateful for the service of our National Guard members. They are our neighbors and they are also our friends.”

In addition to the rigorous medical and decontamination training, Soldiers and Airmen of the strike teams are also tuned in to the sensitivity of their mission, and how for those having samples taken, how unnerving the process can be.

“It can be kind of scary because there’s a lot of unknowns,” said Czaplicki. “They’re taking a long, sharp testing device, a swab, and they’re going up the nostril and pretty much tickling the back of your sinus. When you do that, it makes you want to sneeze or cringe up because there’s a foreign object in your nose. But, it’s a very quick process, it’s very simple, it’s non-invasive. It’s not as scary as it looks or sounds.”

The mission reminds members of the Guard why they volunteered to serve.

“All of our Soldiers and Airmen, them being Virginians themselves, these are their grandparents, these are their neighbor’s grandparents, so we want to treat them with the utmost respect possible and really just have some patience,” said Czaplicki.

“Every point prevalence sampling we do can save lives,” he added. “It provides hospital administrators and facility administrators with needed data to identify those who need additional medical support and those who need to be further isolated and quarantined so we can continue to get through this together.”

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