ATLANTA – In just one month, the Georgia Department of Defense has moved from contingency planning in preparation for COVID-19 operations to full engagements in 10 missions across the state.
On March 10, the Clay National Guard lodging facilities were cleared and prepared to receive guests from the Grand Princess Cruise Ship. On that day, the Georgia Department of Defense (DoD) issued a warning order advising the force that the Georgia DoD would “begin pandemic response operations in order to protect the force, assist local and state authorities with the protection of life and property, and with the preservation of peace, order, and public safety.”
At the time WARNO 1 was issued, Georgia had reported 18 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths. The next day more than 250 cruise ship passengers arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Force Base to be observed for COVID-19 symptoms. The Clay National Guard Center received its first passengers the evening of March 13.
On March 14, Gov. Brian Kemp authorized the activation of 2,000 Georgia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. The next day, the first Soldiers were on mission transporting patients while Georgia State Defense Force volunteers augmented operations at the headquarters of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) alongside Georgia’s Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen.
At first, the battle rhythm of operations had the familiarity of a hurricane or severe weather response, but key differences soon became apparent. The state surgeon of the Georgia DoD was an early key staff augmentee at the State Operations Center, where civilians and service members worked with the Department of Public Health (DPH).
During a briefing for commanders and senior staff March 18, Maj. Gen. Tom Carden, Georgia’s adjutant general, assigned the Georgia DoD joint staff with developing plans for a new kind of unit that could supplement hospital staff.
“The people who will populate that unit will be people with medical skill sets who are not first responders, not working in a hospital,” said Carden, addressing commanders and staff at the Joint Force Headquarters in Marietta. “We are not waiting for someone to ask for this information; we need to anticipate the need and be prepared.”
The concept of the joint medical unit evolved into medical support teams, comprised of Soldiers, Airmen, and Georgia SDF volunteers who had civilian or military training in the medical field. Less than two weeks from the first expression of concept, more than 200 personnel were employed at 19 regional medical centers across the state.
By March 23, the Georgia DoD coordinated the placement of the first medical support team, which embedded two days later. Based on reports from hospitals and input from the state surgeon, Carden ordered the Georgia DoD to inventory all units for ventilators and prepare to transfer them to civilian hospitals.
“Knowing (the number of COVID-19 cases) is not what really matters,” said Carden during a planning meeting with senior leaders. “What really matters is when we hit capacity at hospitals, when will we run out of ventilators?”
With ventilators identified as critical equipment, commanders in the Georgia and Army National Guard requested immediate inventory and calibration. Those in need of calibration were transported to Tobyhanna Army Depot by aviators of the 78th Aviation Troop Command. By March 24, the Georgia DoD logistics officer reported the Georgia DoD could make 41 ventilators available to hospitals.
In his closing comments to commanders and staff March 24, Carden recognized the Herculean efforts of the Georgia DoD and reminded all in attendance to always plan.
“What we are doing now is different than anything we have ever done before,” said Carden. “No one in this room has experience with pandemic response. This is where we live our values. Your entire career has built your ability to respond now. Since the day you put the uniform on, you have learned to be adaptive and agile. We have got to know not only what is going on now; we have to think about what is next.”
On March 26, Brig. Gen. Randall Simmons, commander of the Georgia ARNG and Joint Task Force commander, Georgia COVID-19 Response Force, met with community leaders and hospital staff in Albany, Georgia. Simmons visited a local nursing home where he learned that multiple residents had tested positive for COVID-19.
Recognizing the potential health crisis, Simmons suggested the Georgia National Guard could assist the facility. Soldiers of the Forsyth-based 2nd Battalion 121st Infantry Regiment were dispatched to help at the nursing home and supplement patient observation sites in Albany and Forsyth on March 28. Identifying the vulnerability of nursing homes to COVID-19, Carden told commanders and staff to anticipate a mission to assist. Col. John Till, safety officer of the Georgia DoD, informed senior leaders that his office had disinfected Georgia DoD facilities and the techniques and protective equipment could be adapted to disinfect critical facilities in the state.
Carden briefed members of the governor’s task force about the risk and potential for the Georgia DoD to assist. Carden briefed the governor while Till assembled personnel from the 138th Chemical Company to constitute the first infection control team.
“We are going to generate the capability and be prepared to provide the service,” said Carden. “The critical discussion will have to be had between DPH and GEMA to determine how we are to be employed. Our job is to lean forward as far as we can.”
On March 31, Brig. Gen. Simmons directed the 201st Regional Support Group to dispatch the first ICT to Albany and to take with it personal protective equipment for nursing home workers. Simmons also directed the joint staff to establish a planning team for disinfecting operations.
The Georgia DoD established a list of 383 nursing homes across the state. The first ICT trained a follow-on team at the Albany nursing home. On April 1, 60 Soldiers of the Calhoun-based 1st Squadron, 108th Cavalry Regiment, had trained for the disinfecting mission.
By April 10, nearly 1,000 Soldiers and Airmen comprising 58 ICTs had cleaned nearly 120 facilities. More than 200 of Georgia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were working with medical personnel at 19 hospitals across the state.
Georgia State Defense Force volunteers supported food bank operations in Valdosta, one of nine food banks supported by the Georgia DoD across the state. Logisticians supported GEMA and DPH warehouse operations and isolation facilities, while more than 70 personnel provided health screenings at hospitals in Athens, Atlanta, Albany, Macon and Gainesville, freeing nurses and medical support personnel to care for patients.
As the Georgia DoD passes 30 days of coronavirus response operations, the role these Citizen-Soldiers, Citizen-Airmen and State Defense Force volunteers play continues to expand. As Carden has said on numerous occasions, “We will never be late to need.”