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Polish medical team, Illinois Guard side-by-side in COVID-19 response

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy | National Guard Bureau | May 1, 2020

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ARLINGTON, Va. – A nine-person Polish military medical team is assisting Illinois National Guard members with COVID-19 response efforts, sharing insight gained from dealing with the outbreak in Europe.

“We are deeply moved by the incredible act of support from our friends in Poland who are joining us here in Chicago,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, the adjutant general of the Illinois Guard, said April 29.

The Illinois Guard and the Polish military are partners in the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program, a program that teams National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide.

Developed in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the program has grown to 82 partnerships involving 89 countries. The partnership between the Illinois Guard and Poland was one of the first in the program.

“This is why today we have this nine-person medical team from Poland joining us, who have traveled to Illinois to respond to this COVID-19 fight,” said Neely.

Members of the Polish team took part in the COVID-19 fight in Poland as well as in northern Italy, one of the areas hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen, observed, this disease for nearly three months right now in different regions,” said Polish Capt. (Dr.) Jacek Siewiera, leader of the Polish medical team.

Arriving in Chicago on April 23, the team worked with the Illinois Guard and civilian hospital staff and health care workers throughout the Chicago area. They also took part in web-based conferences with health care workers in other parts of the state.

“The team is involved in consultations and experience exchange,” said Siewiera. “We are trying to provide the best practices which we have seen.”

Those best practices include insight into clinical procedures, diagnosis and treatment and additional ways X-ray images can be used for diagnosis, including a scoring system based on items in the X-ray photo.

“The score of the scale depends on the status of the symptoms in the X-ray picture,” said Siewiera. “That supports the decision to dismiss patients home or admit to the hospital.”

Additionally, the team advised on hospital organization, including ways to streamline triage as well as administration of patient care.

Siewiera added that he’s been impressed with what he’s seen in Chicago – specifically with how the McCormick Place Convention Center in downtown Chicago was converted to a hospital facility.

“We are amazed at how it was done by the National Guard in the McCormick, how it was done at Cook County emergency medical center, and we are amazed how they are using data to support the decision-making process,” he said. “It should look like this all the time.”

Other items the team focused on included ways to limit spread of the disease, especially among health care workers.

“We also have seen that one of the most important vectors of the disease might be the clothes which were taken from the hospital to the home, to the families,” he said, referring to clothes worn by hospital staff.

Siewiera emphasized that those are important steps that help to “flatten the curve” and allow for greater medical capacity. That was very different in northern Italy, where the region’s medical infrastructure was overwhelmed with patients.

“Here [in Chicago], we don’t have collapse of the administration of the medical services,” he said, emphasizing that following basic things like frequent hand washing and maintaining social distancing are especially important.

“All these things among the society [help] to flatten the curve,” said Siewiera.

That’s important, said Siewiera, as there is no overarching vaccination against the virus.

“Unfortunately, we see that there is no optimal treatment yet for the COVID-19,” he said.

Still, the insights gained from the Polish team have been invaluable, said Neely.

“This team is very disciplined,” he said. “I really appreciate all their dedication.”

Without the SPP relationship, the visit probably wouldn’t have been possible, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hatley, the vice director of strategy, plans, policies and international affairs at the National Guard Bureau.

“Poland reached out specifically to Illinois,” said Hatley. “It just truly epitomizes the greatness that is the State Partnership Program.”

Over the 27-year-old partnership, Polish forces and Illinois Guard members have taken part in more than 400 training events and subject-matter-expert exchanges, said Neely. Illinois Guard units and Polish units have also co-deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, integrating into each other’s units.

“One of the strengths of the National Guard is we build these enduring relationships,” said Neely, adding the medical team’s visit is just another example of the enduring relationship between the Illinois Guard and the Polish military.

“We have fought side-by-side for many years, and now we fight this pandemic together,” he said.