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Joint innovation a hallmark of Michigan Guard's response

U.S. Air Force Capt. Brynt Ellis, medical readiness officer of the 127th Medical Group, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan,tests a prototype protective gown while working with Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Palmatier, garrison command sergeant major of Camp Grayling, to procure products for clinicians combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Brynt Ellis, medical readiness officer of the 127th Medical Group, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan,tests a prototype protective gown while working with Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Palmatier, garrison command sergeant major of Camp Grayling, to procure products for clinicians combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

LANSING, Mich. – Nearly sixty days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer activated the Michigan National Guard for COVID-19 humanitarian support, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Bryan Teff, assistant adjutant general – air and commander of the Michigan Air National Guard, is reflecting on the challenges and triumphs of the Guard’s response.

“It has required a complete, joint response in order to appropriately plan, execute, and support the state’s response to COVID-19,” he says. “It couldn’t be done with just one branch.”

Since March 10, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has reported more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases. Michigan has the fourth-largest number of COVID-19-related deaths in the country.

Approximately 1,100 Soldiers and Airmen have teamed to bring aid to state and local agencies, responding to more than 65 unique requests for support. Areas of assistance include logistics aid for medical equipment, medical screening operations, planning augmentation, support for the construction of alternate care facilities, and COVID-19 testing.

Teff says that a joint response was integral in the fight against COVID-19 from the very beginning.

“When you look at the missions, they’re different in terms of their scope, scale and level of expertise that they require, so we all bring something different to the fight,” he says. “In certain cases, the Army has more expertise or personnel in a certain area. In other areas, the Air side has the right equipment or the right people for the mission.”

Teff and his Army counterpart, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Lawrence Schloegl, assistant adjutant general – Army and commander of the Michigan Army National Guard, agree that several missions stand out as prime examples of joint innovation.

Early in the state’s COVID-19 response, joint working groups were formed. These working groups combined Michigan Air and Army National Guard assets with representatives from other agencies such as the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Resources to optimize resources in response to community, district and state needs.

For instance, the procurements working group aims to secure products for frontline health care workers – everything from medical gowns to lifesaving ventilators. The innovation and dedication of working group members brought new supply lines for medical assets and improved modern personal protective equipment – all in the name of protecting medical professionals.

“The working groups were the first joint mission we did,” says Teff. “From the planning to the working groups to the boots-on-the-ground in the field, the most successful missions we’ve had have been joint because you’re bringing in people with different skill sets from all walks of life.”

As COVID-19 cases mounted in late March, hospitals in the Detroit Metro Area were at risk of being overwhelmed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the Michigan National Guard to create a 970-bed alternate care facility at Detroit’s TCF Center, as well as a 250-bed alternate care facility at Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. The 350,000 square-foot section of TCF Center was transformed into a COVID-19 care facility in only nine days.

Schloegl said the Michigan National Guard’s work on the alternate care facilities is an example of how the definition of “joint” goes well beyond the concept of combined Air Force and Army National Guard components to include many other agencies and partners.

“It’s really a whole-of-government response in how we’ve been able to work, whether it’s with the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he says. “For the first time ever in the State of Michigan, we had a dual-status commander with Title 32 National Guard and Title 10 active-duty forces integrated together at TCF Center, so to expedite that in the manner in which we did – it’s all of those agencies pulling together to be successful.”

Since early May, the Michigan National Guard has been fulfilling a request from the Michigan State Police and Michigan Department of Corrections to facilitate testing of inmates at many of the state’s prison facilities. In the first week of operations, Guard members tested more than 7,300 inmates at six correctional facilities in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Army and Air National Guard medical specialists are working side-by-side to test inmates at additional Lower Peninsula correctional facilities as well as long-term care facilities in the Upper Peninsula.

“When you look at the COVID-19 testing, this mission is quite robust and you have to have medical expertise to be successful,” says Teff. “There are only so many medical experts in the force, so we needed to pull the whole team in to get the job done. It required a joint response to meet what the mission required.”

Schlogel agreed that planning for the COVID-19 testing required a holistic organizational outlook.

“The COVID-19 testing is another mission that has been about bringing not just the Army and Air together to serve our communities, but also how we’ve been able to work as a team and inculcate all of these other organizations in that effort,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that what we’re doing to assist other state agencies and to assist the state of Michigan is making a difference – and that’s something our Soldiers and Airmen should be proud of.”

Both commanders agree that COVID-19 has reinforced lessons that will ensure an even swifter and more cohesive response when the Michigan National Guard is called upon in the future.

“The National Guard’s missions are to fight our nation’s wars, defend the homeland, and build global partnerships,” says Teff. “We’ve done a lot of joint training for the warfighting piece of that triad, but I think now we’re bridging into more joint partnerships for our homeland mission.”

Teff adds that while the fight against COVID-19 is far from over, a joint perspective can bring assets to bear for the short-term and inform the holistic approach needed to optimize resources and secure an edge over the next challenge.

“I think one thing we’ve learned,” says Teff, “is that when you’re conducting an operation of this scope and scale, the joint solution is usually the best solution.”

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