LATHAM, N.Y. – When New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called on the National Guard to assist in a coronavirus cluster outbreak in New Rochelle March 10, the first 35 Soldiers and Airmen sprinted into action.
As of April 3, that force has grown to 2,850 personnel around the state who are running a marathon of support to state and local governments.
This includes 2,380 members of the New York Army National Guard, 340 Air National Guard Airmen, and members of the New York Guard, the state's self-defense force, and the New York Naval Militia. The New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs civilian workforce is also fully engaged.
The New York National Guard has six joint task force headquarters operating, with Soldiers and Airmen ready to handle missions from Long Island to Buffalo.
Cuomo emphasized this response would be different from past disasters in a news conference where he spoke with Guard members March 27.
"This is not going to be a short deployment. This is not going to be that you go out there for a few days, we work hard and we go home. This is going to be weeks and weeks and weeks," the governor emphasized.
"This is a different beast that we're dealing with. This is an invisible beast. It is an insidious beast."
Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, the adjutant general of New York, also emphasized the long-term nature of the mission in a March 29 message to the force.
"Everyone's performance and support has been outstanding," Shields said. "This is going to be a long mission and we all sincerely appreciate everyone's hard work."
The Soldiers and Airmen responding were previously on state active duty – with costs and salaries covered by the state – but the federal government is now picking up the tab for the mission following the president's authorization of federal funds for the national emergency.
Most of the missions assigned to the National Guard the past three weeks have been traditional Guard roles of providing logistical support in an emergency. The Guard has moved thousands of pallets of supplies and delivered meals in Manhattan and Westchester and Albany counties.
New York National Guard members are running warehouse operations in the Mohawk Valley, the Albany area and downstate to receive and ship medical supplies forward.
"We're getting shipments of medical supplies here every day, numerous trucks at a time," said Spc. Christopher Clark, a member of Alpha Company, 427th Brigade Support Battalion, who was working at the Oriskany warehouse. "We are unloading them, storing them for now, and starting soon, we are going to be shipping them out to the hot spots.
I feel honored to be a part of this."
Since the mission began, New York National Guard members have packaged 7,850 meals, distributed 148,626 meals and delivered 17,510 gallons of hand sanitizer.
Guard Soldiers and Airmen also helped clean public spaces and disinfected more than 1.5 million square feet during March.
Soldiers have also assembled 22,250 COVID-19 test sets at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany for distribution to test sites and hospitals.
Four important missions have also evolved, all requiring unique skill sets and capabilities from the New York National Guard.
Soldiers helped staff state call centers in Hawthorne, Brooklyn, Rotterdam and Schenectady, fielding a total of 103,338 calls from concerned citizens in March.
"Although staffing a call center is not what many of us foresaw when we joined the National Guard, it is a way for us to assist our fellow citizens and connect them with the information they need," said Army National Guard 1st Lt. Michael Flickinger, the officer in charge at the Schenectady site.
As the state established seven COVID-19 drive-through test sites in the hardest-hit communities, the National Guard provided support for that mission as well.
Army National Guard medics and Air Guard medical technicians donned personal protective gear to administer testing in New Rochelle in Westchester, Bear Mountain in Rockland County, Stony Brook and Jones Beach on Long Island, Staten Island and the Bronx, testing more than 3,000 citizens each day and more than 26,700 in March.
The third new mission set for the National Guard was the rapid reception, staging and construction of a Federal Emergency Management Agency field hospital with 1,000 beds at the Javits Convention Center in New York City.
The troops accomplished the setup and staging in one week, ready to receive the active Army's 44th Medical Brigade. Medical Soldiers from two Army field hospitals began arriving March 28 to staff the facility.
"If we had a year to do this we wouldn't have been able to get it done," said Col. Jamie Green, the New York Army National Guard medical liaison at the Javits Center. "But we've gone and created a hospital in just four to five days. From scratch."
Another first was the deployment of an Air National Guard fatality search and recovery team. The teams, known as FSRT for short, are trained to conduct the dignified retrieval of remains in a disaster. These teams routinely train as part of the New York National Guard's Homeland Response Force.
The team, assigned to the 107th Attack Wing in Niagara Falls, deployed March 23 to assist the office of the chief medical examiner in New York City.
It is one of the most difficult missions, said Air National Guard 1st Lt. Shawn Lavin, commander of the 107th's FSRT.
The key concern for city officials is the surge of patients in the coming weeks, and with that, the expected rise in fatalities and the logistics burden it brings, Lavin said.
"It's going well," Lavin said after his first 10 days of missions in New York City. "It's calmed since we touched down. But everyone understands the gravity of the situation."
In a video conversation with the team April 2, Shields said the Guard is doing more than just reducing the workload of the city's medical examiner.
"Your work makes a difference for families at a very critical time of need when their loss is most personal," Shields said.
As COVID-19 cases in the state surpassed 92,000 on April 2, protecting the health of the force remains a top priority for New York National Guard leaders.
Members arriving for duty across the state get temperature checks, and standard operating procedures call for minimizing social interactions for staff, units and sections preparing for duties.
Pfc. Melanie Wendling, assigned to the 104th Military Police Headquarters, said her bigger concern was for family, not herself.
"I'm from Westchester and my family is all up there," Wendling said. "But I'm staying in a hotel here in New York City, so I don't have to go home. It's safer that way," she explained.
On April 1, Cuomo told New Yorkers the peak of pandemic patients in the state might not be until April 28, some four more weeks away.
"This is beyond best efforts," Cuomo said in a news conference. "This is beyond, 'I'm working very hard.' We have to get this done. We have to succeed. We have to find a way. We have to make it happen, because too much is at stake."