LATHAM, N.Y. – A week into a mission to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the New York National Guard had 900 personnel on duty from Long Island to New York City to the Albany area March 17.
New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are providing logistical and administrative support to state and local governments; staffing two state call centers handling questions from the public; assisting at three drive-thru COVID-19 testing stations; cleaning public buildings in New Rochelle; warehousing and delivering bulk supplies of New York State sanitizer to local governments; and helping the New Rochelle school district deliver meals to students not in school.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency March 7, which allowed the state to move more rapidly to assist local governments in dealing with the disease.
On March 10, the governor directed Army Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, the adjutant general of New York, to deploy troops to assist local officials and residents in New Rochelle as the state established a containment zone to control the COVID-19 virus in the small city just north of New York City.
"New Rochelle at this point is probably the largest cluster in the United States of these cases and it is a significant issue," the governor said in a press release.
"The numbers have been going up, the numbers continue to go up, the numbers are going up unabated and we do need a special public health strategy for New Rochelle," he said. "What we are going to do is focus on an area concentric circle around the sites of the majority of the cases in New Rochelle."
Schools and places of worship in a zone centered on New Rochelle closed to contain the spread of the virus.
The New York National Guard initially mobilized 300 Soldiers and Airmen, along with members of the New York Naval Militia and the New York Guard, the state defense force, to support the effort.
On March 12, the support effort began with Guard Soldiers and Airmen distributing food bags prepared at Feeding Westchester, the regional food pantry in the county.
The primary concern was that schoolchildren relying on low-cost or free breakfast and lunch at school would miss meals.
Distribution points were established at local community centers. Food was passed out to school families and other residents who were not able to get food because of the situation.
"We're here to show them we will do anything we can to help them out," said Army Sgt. Corey Smith, a member of the 1156th Engineer Company, who was in charge at one site.
"The community is actually extremely happy that we are here," he added. While some people might be concerned about working in the area, his troops were not, Smith said.
"None of our Soldiers here are scared," Smith said. "We are just here to hand out food and make sure everybody feels comfortable and safe."
The arrival of the National Guard in New Rochelle reduced fears among residents, said Frank Giordano, a member of the Mamaroneck Department of Sanitation, as he helped unload hand sanitizer from a National Guard team March 13.
"I know I feel safer seeing the Guard here," Giordano said. "It's good; good just knowing you're here."
New York National Guard Soldiers staffed a call center established by the Department of Health at the Hudson Valley Transportation Center in Hawthorne.
The Soldiers' mission is to take calls from residents seeking information and follow a script to help answer their questions or pass them along to a medical professional. A second call center in Rotterdam was established to handle calls and staffed by New York National Guard personnel.
On March 16, officials monitoring the call centers reported that New York National Guard personnel and state employees handled 13,775 calls.
Sanitizer manufactured at a Department of Correctional and Custodial Services facility north of Albany is being shipped into the Hudson Valley for use by individuals and on surfaces.
Bulk deliveries are being received at Camp Smith Training Site, the New York National Guard's facility near Peekskill. Boxes of the "NYS Clean" sanitizer are then delivered to local users by the Guard.
Camp Smith also served initially to house the troops deployed in the Hudson Valley. As the force grows, troops are also billeted in local hotels.
The governor also directed the Guard to assist localities in cleaning public spaces. So far, New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen cleaned critical surfaces in the New Rochelle City Hall and the Westchester County Jewish Community Center.
National Guard Army medics and Air Guard medical technicians are also helping collect samples at drive-thru testing locations. While medical personnel assist in sample collection, other Soldiers and Airmen assist in logistics tasks and traffic management.
Testing locations are running in Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties on Long Island and Rockland County, across the Hudson River from Westchester.
"We are here to screen the community to keep the community safe and try to prevent the spread of the virus," said Army Pfc. Class Justin Zammit, a medic in the 369th Sustainment Brigade.
Zammit was trained to assist in record-keeping at the testing location in Westchester County.
"I would say it is a scary situation. But we are here to serve," Zammit said. "That is what we signed up for. We're proud that we're allowed to be here in the community and help everyone out here."
Initially, the New York National Guard operated with a task force based at Camp Smith Training Site.
To staff testing sites on Long Island, the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing set up their task force headquarters at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach.
The 109th Airlift Wing, based at Stratton Air National Guard Base near Schenectady, established a task force headquarters to handle missions that might arise in the Albany area.
In a message to leaders, troops and civilian employees, Shields, the adjutant general of New York, emphasized the need for all parts of the force to work together and support state efforts.
"This crisis is a true crisis," Shields said. "I believe the fight against COVID-19 will exceed what we did in response to the attacks of 11 September 2001 and our response to Super Storm Sandy. This is that serious."