CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia National Guard’s (WVNG) Task Force Medical continues to provide invaluable efforts to help combat the spread and impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally stood up shortly after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice declared a State of Emergency on March 16, 2020, Task Force Medical currently consists of over 70 Soldiers and Airmen from the WVNG who are assisting by providing planning, logistical, and manpower support to various state and local agencies around the Mountain State in two primary lines of effort: epidemiology/health data management and testing.
“Ultimately, we’ve been a force multiplier to assist and amplify what other agencies are doing that lack resources, manpower, or time, so we give another tier of resources,” said Air Force Lt. Col. John Wiles, the Task Force Medical commander. “We talk to county health officers, hospital officials, and everything in between daily. We have built relationships and lent a hand where it was needed throughout this pandemic.”
The first priority for Task Force Medical was to talk to state and local health officials to identify critical needs that we could assist with and to help surge resources and much needed manpower efforts to where they could do the most good. That involved assessing Soldier’s and Airmen’s individual skill sets in order to best utilize their strengths and experience, and then rapidly imbedding those members with partner agencies.
“Building relationships and establishing our usefulness was critical,” said Wiles. “Our folks being able to integrate quickly and with knowledge to take some of the immediate planning and operational load stress off of agencies was an important part of ramping up and now in sustaining long-term response efforts.”
Those relationships created between Guardsmen and civilian agencies laid the foundation for the state's collaborative response.
While other WVNG task forces concentrated on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) distribution and sanitization efforts, Task Force Medical quickly dove into epidemiology and health data management by deploying personnel across the state into each of the six West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (WVDHHR) surveillance regions. Their mission was to assist health departments in all 55 counties with protocol development, strategic response planning, and surveillance system development, including data aggregation and analysis into the West Virginia Electronic Disease Surveillance System (WVEDSS), a web-based electronic reporting system.
Through streamlining of the process, Task Force Medical was able to increase the collection, analysis, and charting of accurate, real-time epidemiological data, painting an expedited picture of the COVID-19 effects on the state. This data in turn provided crucial awareness to state officials making public health safety decisions.
Once wide-scale COVID-19 testing began, Task Force Medical partnered with Task Force Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Response Enterprise (TF-CRE) and local county health departments to deploy personnel around the state to high-risk facilities such as nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and prisons. Testing support then shifted focus to testing lanes at medical facilities and locations, as well as for minority communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Task Force Medical personnel helped with traffic control, swabbing, and collection of testing samples at collection points, providing transportation of specimens to testing laboratories, as well as back-end logistical and operational support. This included the collection and delivery of high-priority specimen from county health departments that do not have local on-site testing capabilities, which were collected and delivered to the state lab through coordination with regional epidemiologists for testing and result reporting.
Once testing was completed, the results were then further tracked by Task Force Medical personnel, and voluntary COVID-19 mapping efforts began in earnest.
“The overall goal is to get back to normal, but to get there, we have to complete four steps,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Jayme Brooks-Dumproff, an Epidemiologist assigned to Task Force Medical. “First we have to test widely, second we have to isolate those positive cases hastily, third we have to do our best to track down the people that have come in contact with the positive cases, and lastly we have to quarantine those contacts for 14 days, which is the amount of time the virus has to show up in a person.
Task Force Medical’s swift actions and engagement since the beginning of the pandemic have been instrumental in helping West Virginia keep overall low numbers and to help control the negative impacts of the pandemic,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, the West Virginia Coronavirus Czar. “The guard truly has been the glue that holds everything together. The commitment to duty that the guard has is the key ingredient to make our response in West Virginia work, and I know I could ask so many others, and they would say the same thing.
Task Force Medical, and the entire WVNG, continues to serve the citizens of West Virginia in times of need, and will do so until the COVID-19 pandemic is resolved.