NEW YORK – The toughest COVID-19 mission facing the New York National Guard falls on 255 Soldiers and Airmen supporting New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), according to Army Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, the adjutant general of New York.
The medical examiner's office is responsible for the dignified recovery of people who die outside of a hospital. The staff was overwhelmed at the spike in COVID-19-related deaths in the city of 8.5 million people, so city officials turned to the New York National Guard for help.
Now, New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are on duty around the clock helping handle the physically and emotionally demanding responsibility of the dignified removal of remains.
"Your work makes a difference for families at a very critical time of need when their loss is most personal," Shields told members of the detail April 2.
For the New York National Guard, that mission started March 23, the day Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed hospitals to increase bed capacity by 50 percent to handle an expected surge in COVID-19 patients.
That day, 13 Airmen of the 107th Attack Wing Fatality Search and Recovery Team (FSRT), based at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, reported for duty for the second-order effect of the pandemic in New York City. They deployed to help the OCME process and transport the dead.
"We arrived in New York City on Tuesday, touched down Wednesday morning for training with the OCME and Thursday we were out on the road," described New York Air National Guard 1st Lt. Shawn Lavin, the commander of the 107th FSRT.
"The city hospitals are at or just about at their capacities," Lavin said after his first week of missions. And the second and third-order effects of that is the "downstream impact," Lavin said, referring to crowded hospital morgues and funeral homes.
The National Guard is assisting the city with the recovery of remains from deaths that occur across the city in private residences, hospitals and nursing homes.
"Teams go out each day," Lavin said. "We'll dispatch with the OCME in their vehicle and our team in the trail vehicle."
As the workload increased in late March, an additional 220 Army National Guard Soldiers, from the 101st Signal Battalion, the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion and the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, were mobilized for the duty.
The New York Air National Guard also provided Lavin's team with 28 additional qualified personnel from across the wings to receive training and augment the recovery teams.
The teams operate across the city, supporting OCME missions in all five boroughs from central locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
Fifteen teams operate each day and another group of 15 supports OCME each night.
"Soldiers understand the mission, how important it is and that their help is greatly needed by their fellow citizens and appreciated by authorities," Command Sgt. Maj. David Piwowarski, the New York Army National Guard's senior enlisted adviser, said following a visit to the teams April 12.
In addition, the Army's 54th Quartermaster Company, based at Fort Lee, Va., deployed 50 mortuary affairs Soldiers to assist OCME.
Working alongside the medical examiners, these Soldiers have been assisting in the processing and disposition of remains.
Every element to arrive in New York City has received training from the OCME staff. The training highlights the unique personal protective requirements, interactions and procedures for the medical examiner's office.
"The OCME, they do it day-to-day, so they have been excellent mentors. And my team, the first to arrive here, is now part of the training element for other troops," Lavin said.
The work for the OCME increased dramatically across the city in less than four weeks. The arrival of these troops timed with the worsening outcomes for patients across the city.
Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the New York City commissioner of health, told The New York Times April 14 that 3,000 more people died in the city between March 11 and April 13 than would normally have been expected during the same period in an ordinary year.
There were 6,589 confirmed deaths out of 106,813 reported coronavirus cases as of April 13, the New York City Department of Health said. City officials also acknowledge another 3,778 deaths were probably linked to COVID-19, but those victims had not been tested.
Deaths in New York City continue to remain between 300 and 500 per day, according to the city Department of Health.
The work is unlike any training scenario the Guard men and women have experienced, Lavin said.
Normally, a police officer is already on scene for deaths that occur in a private residence, he said.
"The medical examiner handles the appropriate processing steps and National Guard personnel provide the manpower for removing and transporting those remains," Lavin said.
"Everyone understands the gravity of the situation," he explained, noting how uncommon and unprepared his Airmen were to be present in people's homes to help remove remains of the victims.
"It is a humbling experience. You can only make it so realistic in training. You see things you'd never thought you'd see in your military service," he said. "It is a mentally taxing and physically taxing job."
After a moment to acknowledge sympathies, the team gets to work, taking measures to prevent cross-contamination and removing remains to city morgues for final processing and disposition.
"We treat every recovery as if it is a possible COVID-19," Lavin said.
The National Guard also deployed support resources forward to assist, providing chaplaincy and behavioral health specialists to speak with the force about the stresses of this particular task.
The support is helpful because no amount of training or preparation readies you for the job, said Senior Airman Anita Walter from the FSRT.
"Something about seeing the real thing just hits you a little different," Walter said.
Lavin implemented an enhanced wingman concept to reinforce resiliency in his team, he said.
"I try to keep people who know each other working together, to take time off together, to help them bond together."
The Army National Guard Soldiers are teamed with others from their unit. That unit integrity boosts resiliency, Piwowarski said April 15 in a summary for National Guard Bureau leaders.
"Junior and senior NCOs told me that maintaining unit integrity is very important in these missions. Units are support systems," Piwowarski said. "If you deployed with a unit, there's a bond there."
"A certain comradery develops between Soldiers who have gone through challenging times together. Having someone to share a troubling experience with is a positive. Leaders can use this to keep their Soldiers healthy," he added.
The toll on Soldiers and Airmen has been challenging, but the consensus is a commitment to the mission, knowing that it matters, Shields said.
"Everybody feels like they are part of the solution here," Lavin said.
There is optimism in the city and state that the trend for COVID-19 deaths will decrease.
"It's such a humbling experience," Lavin said. "We're here to help and do our part to find a solution."