ORIENT, Ohio – Nearly 30 Ohio National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, part of Joint Task Force Red Med, are supporting the medical staff at Pickaway Correctional Institution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A rise in COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff increased the number of patients and decreased the number of medical professionals who could provide care. This prompted the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) to ask the Ohio National Guard for assistance.
“This setting is tough,” said Kevin Runyon, ODRC medical operations director. “This is what COVID-19 looks like when you don’t have social distancing. We don’t have that opportunity in the prison system. We don’t have that space. It’s overwhelming, and that’s why we needed the National Guard.”
Maj. Holly Hogsett, a medical administrator assigned to the Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Wing in Springfield and the JTF-Red Med commander, said the medical staff at Pickaway Correctional Institution (PCI) was working 16-hour shifts seven days a week before her team began the support mission.
“It’s put a huge stress on their ability to provide adequate care to their patients,” Hogsett said. “We’re here to support the medical staff so they can get the respite they need.”
The Guard members assigned to JTF-Red Med are providing basic medical functions consistent with their level of training, such as taking temperatures and checking vital signs, to allow the PCI medical staff to focus on patients with moderate and severe symptoms.
“It takes about an hour and a half to get temperatures for all the inmates, and getting vitals on those who’ve tested positive takes even more time,” said Pfc. Jeffrey Thornton, a combat medic assigned to the Ohio Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment in Delaware, Ohio, who has been working in the long-term care facility at PCI. “The time we spend doing those tasks allows the nurses to focus on providing critical care.”
Runyon said the support provided by Ohio National Guard medical personnel has provided a lifeline to the PCI staff.
“Without them, we couldn’t do our mission,” Runyon said. “They’re allowing us to extend our services so we can handle this many patients every day.”
Hogsett said the safety of the Soldiers and Airmen supporting the mission had been a top priority from the start, and they are taking all possible safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Every day, they wear gowns, gloves, masks and face shields.
In addition to keeping the Soldiers and Airmen physically healthy as they support the mission, they are also taking steps to keep them physically safe. Hogsett said JTF-Red Med members are never left alone with any inmates. There’s always a corrections officer nearby if needed, and they’re leaning on the expertise of those with more experience working in these types of environments.
“I’m trying to help my colleagues understand how to stay safe and avoid certain situations they could find themselves in,” said Spc. Stacy Britton, a combat medic assigned to 2nd Squadron, 107th Cavalry Regiment, who has deployed to Iraq and worked as a state corrections officer for eight years.
Soldiers like Britton represent the National Guard’s diversity and flexibility to meet the needs of each mission by bringing not just their military training but also their civilian experience to the job. While many members of the task force said they never expected to serve on this type of mission, they have been relying on one another’s expertise and variety of experiences to adapt to the situation.
“We bring different things to the table,” Britton said. “The Air Force has more clinical experience than we (the Army) do; we’re field medics and bring that experience with us. But we’re all working together to mesh that experience together and learn from each other. Early on, it was kind of like a high school dance scenario. The Army was on one side and the Air Force on the other, but we’re really starting to become a team. It’s been a really positive experience.”
Staff Sgt. Lindsey Davis, a medic assigned to the 178th Wing, agreed.
“I’ve been working with an Army (Soldier), and we both have different training, so we’ve been able to help each other out,” Davis said. “We’re more on the clinical side and they do more fieldwork, so we’re able to use each other’s skill sets to our advantage.”