TROY, N.Y. – Since last April, the New York National Guard has assembled and shipped more than 10.4 million COVID-19 test kits to public testing sites, nursing homes, schools, universities and hospitals.
The operation started in a room at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center building in Albany and expanded to a former armory now owned by Russell Sage College.
In August, the operation needed more room and better climate control and moved to an ice arena in Troy. The arena floor is packed with boxes of supplies stacked to the top of the bleachers.
Early in the mission, packaging 18,000 test kits in a workday was a pretty big deal, recalled New York Army National Guard Spc. Aubree Brothers, who has been on the mission from the start. Now, the 20-member team can assemble 100,000 test kits daily, the Delta Company, 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion Soldier said.
On April 7, a little more than year after starting the mission, military members who work in the ice arena hit the 10 million test kits mark.
It’s good to be able to tout that accomplishment, said Army National Guard Pfc. Sydney Smith, with the 206th Military Police Company.
“I feel good about it,” she said. “We are helping out the community.”
The New York National Guard team, led by Air Guard Senior Master Sgt. Darla Roote, a member of the Syracuse-based 152nd Air Operations Group, works at the direction of the state's Department of Health and Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
The health department's Wadsworth Center, the state’s premier health research facility, determines how many test kits need to be made and shipped each week, said Melissa Nussbaum, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services program manager who oversees the test kit operation.
The Guardsmen and women play a critical role in making sure the test kits get assembled and shipped, she added.
Monday is the big day for the COVID-19 test kit assembly team, Roote said.
The team spends the previous week getting materials ready for packing and shipping via United Parcel Service truck based on the Department of Health order for kits. Supplies are quality checked and boxes are labeled to indicate how many test sets are inside and where they are going, she explained.
On Monday, the supplies are pushed out. Kits go to 15 state-run COVID-19 testing sites, universities, schools, nursing homes and hospitals and other locations as required.
Each kit consists of a nose swab, a vial full of a liquid, which is part of the testing process, and an absorbent pad to wipe up any leaks from the vials.
Soldiers eyeball the liquid inside the vials to make sure it hasn’t gone bad.
If the liquid looks like pink drink, it's OK, said Spc. Christopher Udell, a member of the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion who has been on the mission since April 2020. If it looks like murky pond water, then it has gone bad and cannot be used.
When the mission began, the National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assembled complete test kits, said Spc. Sterling Jolly, another 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion Soldier. The three items – swab, liquid vial and absorbent pad – were packaged in plastic bags and then packed in boxes.
But in June, the Guardsmen stopped making complete test kits. Instead, the three main items and the plastic “bio bag” were counted out into sets and then packed in boxes for shipping. This switch to “mass production” allowed the National Guard team to ship far more test kits, Brother said.
Along with members of the Army and Air National Guard, the test kit team also includes members of the New York Naval Militia – the state’s force of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard reservists who sign up to do state duty as well as their federal service – and the New York Guard, the state’s volunteer defense force.
It’s a good team and a good mission, said Brothers.
“It feels like we are helping,” she said.