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Mass. Guard conducts COVID-19 testing at nursing homes

By Capt. Bonnie Blakely | Massachusetts National Guard | April 13, 2020

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BOSTON – Massachusetts National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are conducting mobile COVID-19 testing on patients at nursing homes throughout the commonwealth.

As of April 11, more than 3,000 swab tests had been completed. The testing began March 31, and the mission is ongoing.

“Our personnel are highly trained in the areas of patient care and sample collection, which has been pivotal to the success of this mission,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Derek May, Medical Plans and Operations Officer, Region I CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) Task Force.

Twelve medical teams activated throughout the state under the Task Force CBRN Medical Support Element have been assisting medical facilities and nursing homes with high-risk populations.

The residents at these facilities are unable to do drive-thru testing or go to their local urgent care centers. Bringing this capability directly to the residents helps facilities identify positive COVID-19 patients, which allows them to apply increased safety procedures to help slow and stop the spread, May said.

“When the patients see military personnel, it gives them comfort,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joseph Startup, 102nd Medical Group, clinical supervisor. “They know we are out here to keep our community and our citizens safe during this time.”

Nursing homes and providers are identified by the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPH) for testing each morning and given to the medical teams. Each team typically visits three to four locations a day, resulting in more than 300 total tests administered on average per day. The swabs are packaged in a cooler and delivered to the DPH at the end of each day, Startup said.

Testing teams have six to nine Guard members – medics, CBRN decontamination personnel and a non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) that oversees the team. Airmen and Soldiers are spread throughout each team and are conducting missions jointly.

“Integrating with our sister service partners in the Army has been seamless,” said May. “From day one, all of the Soldiers and Airmen have banded together to provide the same level of service to the commonwealth’s citizens.”

Some of the Soldiers are from infantry and artillery units. They received extensive training on how to wear the required personal protective equipment (PPE) and conduct a swab test. All testing team members are monitored by a medical team leader.

“It’s really a huge, successful display of teamwork,” said Army Maj. Ryan Lee, a dental officer providing medical supervision and quality control. “It’s an incredible sight to see infantry and field artillery soldiers who are trained [to administer COVID-19 tests] step outside of their military occupational specialty to answer the call.”

After testing is completed inside each facility, everyone on the team goes through a detailed decontamination process, which includes safely removing the PPE and being sprayed with chemicals to remove any possible contaminants.

“Being able to come out here as a medic as we’re all helping the community is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” said Army Spc. Albert Richards, medical team leader. “Seeing the general impact and the sighs of relief from the nurses when we’re in and out of their facilities and helping them … it’s amazing.”