LOUISVILLE, Ky. – More than 40 members of the Kentucky Air National Guard reported to Baptist Hospital East Sept. 14 to provide logistical support for medical staff fighting a rising tide of critically ill COVID patients.
They're among 310 Kentucky Army and Air National Guardsmen who were activated this week by Gov. Andy Beshear to provide non-clinical assistance to 21 hospitals across the commonwealth. The latest call-up is in addition to more than 100 Kentucky Guardsmen already supporting hospitals in four communities.
"We're excited about your being here, for however long you're willing to be with us," said Larry Gray, president of Baptist Health Louisville, in greeting the Airmen. "We can't express enough just how important it is that you're here to support our colleagues in this pandemic, that you're here to step into the breach in places where we need help, to provide the care we need to provide for the sake of our community."
The Airmen are expected to take over visitor health screenings, food services, restocking of supplies and other administrative tasks so medical providers can focus exclusively on patient care, according to Lt. Col. Bryan Keating, mission commander. An additional 15 Kentucky Air Guardsmen are supporting the University of Louisville Hospital.
Beshear said this week's activation marks the largest mobilization of Guard forces in state history in response to a health care crisis. He expressed his appreciation to the hundreds of Soldiers and Airmen who have repeatedly volunteered to leave their civilian jobs to support COVID-response missions over the past 18 months, from providing logistical support at nursing homes to operating drive-through testing and vaccination sites across Kentucky.
"Every time we've asked, they've stepped up and served us so proudly," he said.
The influx of COVID patients is stretching resources to their limit across the state, Beshear noted.
"Right now, COVID is as bad as it's ever been in this pandemic, and right now, sadly, we are one of the hottest states in the country," he said.
According to the latest figures from the state health department, Kentucky has reported 630,299 coronavirus cases and 8,071 deaths, with 2,446 people now hospitalized — 646 in intensive care and 411 on ventilators.
For Keating, the mission is "extremely important" to the Guard.
"I'm a Kentuckian, and this is about Kentuckians helping Kentuckians," he said. "We're all family, right? And we're trying to take care of each other. As members of the Air National Guard, obviously we've deployed overseas multiple times, and we're helping the world. But when it hits closer to home like this, it really feels good to help our own brothers and sisters."
Chief Master Sgt. Steven Best agreed.
"I've been supporting the COVID response since November of last year," said Best, who works as a human resources manager for an auto parts supplier in the civilian world. "It has been drastic, you know. Initially, I was tasked with going around and helping at the long-term nursing homes, and then I supported the shot clinics. So, seeing the different aspects of what COVID is doing to our society — it means a lot to be able to help.
"This really breaks down to service before self. And that's what the Air National Guard is about. We're committed to helping not only our nation or other countries but our home state as well."