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Nevada Guard helps track COVID-19 spread among Reno homeless

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Emerson Marcus
  • 152 Airlift Wing

RENO, Nev. – Nevada National Guardsmen conducted a sample collection site for COVID-19 testing Thursday after the Washoe County Health District noticed an uptick in cases among homeless people at downtown shelters operated by Volunteers of America.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of our guests, residents and staff,” said Pat Cashell, regional director, Volunteers of America, who oversees the emergency shelter programs in Reno. “VOA provides the first step out of homelessness, offering hope. Ensuring the health and well-being of these individuals is crucial, not only for them but for the good of our community.”

On Jan. 7, the Nevada Guard’s community-based collection site focused on the men’s emergency shelter on East Fourth Street and employees at the site. Constructed in August, the shelter serves up to 304 men, said Julianna Glock, operations and compliance manager, Volunteers of America. The shelter was at capacity when the Nevada Guard arrived, Glock said.

Nevada Air National Guard 2nd Lt. Greg Fellows said the homeless shelter’s community-based collection site was different from many others the Nevada Guard has led around the state the past eight months.

“We are coming to their home, or place of residence, rather than having them arrive in vehicles and drive through for testing, as we’ve done with most other sites,” said Fellows, 152nd Medical Group. “There’s more of a need for a bedside manner here.”

Fellows understands the importance of a good bedside manner — he’s used just that for months when coming in contact with those most seriously stricken by the virus. As a civilian, he works as a nurse on the COVID intensive care unit floor at Renown Regional Medical Center.

"I enjoy working my dual role for the Guard and at the hospital," he said. "It's definitely been a lot of work, but I'm proud of what I do in both."

On Jan. 7, guests staying at the shelter woke up from their sleeping quarters at about 6 a.m. and walked several feet to COVID testing lines at the indoor facility. Testing was on a volunteer basis. About 70 samples were collected during the three-hour event and sent to nearby labs to track the rate of spread at the shelter.

“We’re happy to partner with the Guard to help protect our unhoused neighbors,” Glock said.

The Nevada Guard has collected more than 1.5 million swab samples for COVID-19 testing in the state since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of all tests in the state, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services said. The mobile collection teams, or “strike teams,” include about a dozen Guardsmen to setup, administer and conduct swab collection.

At its peak, more than 1,200 Nevada Guardsmen activated for the state’s response last summer, supporting testing sites, food distribution, call centers, contact tracing and various other missions. About 400 Guard members remain on orders through March 31 for the state’s COVID-19 response efforts.