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Guard assists state health officials in COVID-19 mapping

Washington Air National Guard Maj. Brian Banke, a chaplain with the Western Air Defense Sector, functions as the training manager for the COVID-19 mapping mission for the Washington National Guard at the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) offices in Tumwater, Washington, May 15, 2020. The Washington National Guard is supporting the DOH to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Washington prepares to move to reopening parts of the state.

Washington Air National Guard Maj. Brian Banke, a chaplain with the Western Air Defense Sector, functions as the training manager for the COVID-19 mapping mission for the Washington National Guard at the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) offices in Tumwater, Washington, May 15, 2020. The Washington National Guard is supporting the DOH to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Washington prepares to move to reopening parts of the state.

ARLINGTON, Va. – National Guard members are helping state and local health agencies conduct voluntary COVID-19 mapping to track and reduce the spread of the virus.

“We are not focused on tracking the individual,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Panush, officer in charge of the Washington National Guard team working on mapping efforts. “We’re actually tracking the virus …tracking where the virus might spread throughout the [local] communities.”

Guard members assisting those efforts are working solely in support of state and local health departments, who are the lead agencies on mapping efforts in their state or region. All information gathered is given voluntarily, said Panush, adding the Guard only collects that information; the health department is responsible for its secure storage and use.

The mapping process begins with a positive COVID-19 test.

Health care providers notify the person tested of the positive result, provide quarantine guidelines and ask if the individual is open to being contacted further, said Panush.

“If the answer is yes, then the information will go to the department of health and [the individual’s information] will go into a database,” he said.

That’s where Guard members come in, primarily staffing call centers where they make those follow-up calls in support of the state health department.

“The questions during the phone calls are very scripted,” said Panush. “The caller will ask the individuals a series of questions and try and establish where they have been in the past 14 days. But again, the information is completely voluntary.”

Many state health department officials are also asking for contact information for those the COVID-19 patient may have come in contact with and if they are open to being contacted.

“That information shows the potential progression of the virus from the initial patient, who we contacted, to a [potential] second person,” said Panush.

It also allows the health department to track commonalities where infections occurred, identify potential COVID-19 hot spots and reach out to those who may be unaware they’ve been around somebody who tested positive, said Casandra Calcione, a disease intervention specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“The mission of the contact [mapping] team at the Rhode Island Department of Health is to reach all contacts of positive cases,” she said. “What we’re trying to find out is if they are symptomatic or asymptomatic.”

Those who are symptomatic are urged to get tested, and both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals are advised to self-quarantine, said Calcione.

“We are instructing them to quarantine at home,” she said. “We give them guidance and we explain what it means and the importance for them to be home and not out and about.”

However, stressed both Calcione and Panush, information is strictly confidential. Guard members making the calls can’t disclose any identifying information.

“They won’t mention who it was [who tested positive], so there’s that confidentiality,” Panush said, adding that Guard members making the calls work from a case number, rather than names or other identifying information.

Confidentiality is also stressed in the training Guard members go through before working the phones.

“We already have prior training about maintaining people’s personal information safely,” said Spc. Keith Matthews, with the Washington Army National Guard’s C Company, 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, and a member of the Washington Guard’s contact mapping team. “That was reinforced through about a week of training, mostly on handling personal information correctly.”

The information gathered is primarily used in aggregate, said Panush, adding the focus is on how the virus is moving throughout the area.

“The health department will look at that geographically and find out how it’s spreading,” he said. “Then, if they need to notify the county or the jurisdiction that potential case lives in – or if there is a chain of other events, like maybe a common place – they can do that.”

Making those calls also allows an avenue of assistance for those who may need it.

“One person [the team called] said they were homebound and weren’t able to get out and get food,” said Panush. “We looped back the contact with the department of health and then called them back right away and said, ‘Here’s a service that actually provides food directly from a food bank and will deliver it to you.’”

That’s something built into the questions those in Rhode Island ask of those they call, said Calcione.

“We are educating them about quarantine and isolation and asking if they need any assistance while they are quarantined or in isolation,” she said, adding the Guard support has been invaluable.

“It’s absolutely been amazing working with the National Guard,” she said. “I’ve never worked with anybody else who is so hardworking.”

For Matthews, it’s part of the job.

“This specific job, and the Guard in general, really helps out the people of the state,” he said. “Whether we’re responding to a natural disaster or something like this, it’s affecting people.”

Panush agreed.

“We’re all neighbors with the people who we’re talking on the phone with,” he said. “I think from the initial mindset, we’re wired to help people.”

Air Force Master Sgt. John Hughel and Airman 1st Class Brittni Capozzi contributed to this report.

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