NEWS | May 29, 2020

Pa. National Guard launches COVID-19 testing task force

By Staff Sgt. Zane Craig Pennsylvania National Guard

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – The Pennsylvania National Guard has assembled a task force to conduct point prevalence sampling at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the Commonwealth.

The sampling is being conducted at the direction of the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DoH) to provide logistics, planning and personnel to test all residents and staff at identified facilities for COVID-19 infection.

The DoH identified a need for increased testing of residents in long-term care facilities, many of which lack the staff or resources to test comprehensively. The Pennsylvania Guard is providing people, many medically trained, to fill this gap.

“Nursing homes have been the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis because they include one of the most at-risk demographics in a community living environment,” said Maj. Matthew Gabler, the medical operations officer with the Pennsylvania Guard’s Military Medical Planning Team. “Increased testing is intended to provide better data to understand the problem in order to implement better, targeted infection control measures to protect Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Gabler said when the DoH identifies a facility to test, a military medical provider and a DoH representative visit to validate the need and ensure conditions are suitable for the mission.

“Then, the site survey results are shared with PEMA/DoH, who review and confirm the mission assignment,” said Gabler. “Once the mission assignment is made, the regional [Pennsylvania task force] takes the lead on executing the mission. They identify the team to complete the mission and coordinate logistics and supplies.”

Once the mission is assigned to a PTF, the task force works directly with the facility to schedule the PPST’s arrival time, Gabler said.

“Based on availability of Guard personnel and the facility’s schedule, the time from site survey to mission start can be as little as three to five days,” he said.

The Pennsylvania National Guard’s domestic response forces are coordinated through three regional and two functional PTFs; North, South, West, Support, and Aviation. PTF-North and PTF-West each have one point prevalence sampling team of approximately 12 members, while PTF-South, in south-central Pennsylvania and the populous Philadelphia region, has two teams.

“We’re testing every patient and every employee in the facility, and we’re doing it in an efficient manner,” said Air Force Capt. Sondra Mendelsohn, a medical officer and physician with the 111th Attack Wing. “We’re getting in and out in a day or so and getting these people some answers, so I think that’s been really helpful for them and a big accomplishment for us.”

Mendelsohn and her team conducted testing at Hickory House Nursing Home in Honey Brook May 22, one of the PPST’s first missions. The first mission was at Gino Merli Veterans’ Center May 18 before sampling expanded to civilian facilities. The Guard has conducted point prevalence sampling at seven locations and has two scheduled.

“We’re super passionate about what we’re doing here,” said Pfc. Roland McClune. “We understand these are people’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, so we want to treat them like we would treat our own.”