SYRACUSE, N.Y. – When Senior Airman Taylor Dunham, an Air Force medical technician, joined the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing, he figured he would be taking temperatures or checking blood pressure.
Since November, Dunham has been caring for nursing home residents at the Loretto Health and Rehabilitation Center in Syracuse.
The Norwich resident is one of three 174th Attack Wing medical technicians working at the rehab center, along with another Air Guard med-tech from the 105th Airlift Wing and 90 Army Guard medics.
They are among 485 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen on duty at 87 nursing homes to help ease staffing shortages.
“It’s been great helping people and it has been a really good experience,” Dunham said.
Senior Airman Skyler Suazo, a member of the 105th Airlift Wing in Newburgh, is also assigned to Loretto Health and Rehab.
A licensed practical nurse and EMT, Suazo said she understands the challenges to the health care system brought on by the pandemic and appreciates the opportunity to help those in need.
“The most rewarding part of this mission is seeing how grateful residents are and how well they respond to our care,” Suazo said. “We give them every ounce in our being to give them the best care we can.”
The Guard Soldiers and Airmen working at Loretto are part of a mission that began at the beginning of December at the direction of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.
A surge in COVID-19 cases threatened to overload hospitals. But a shortage of nursing facility staff meant older patients could not be moved from hospitals to nursing homes.
The goal, the governor explained at the time, was to relieve staffing shortages in nursing facilities so patients in hospitals could move into those facilities and, in turn, free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.
At the governor’s direction, the New York National Guard identified 120 Army Guard medics and Air Guard medical technicians who could go on duty in nursing homes to help with patient care and free up staff.
Initially, those 120 personnel were in 13 nursing homes.
To provide more medically trained personnel who could assist in nursing home resident care, the New York National Guard trained 400 personnel as emergency medical technicians and assigned other troops to assist as cooks and for general staff support.
Throughout the pandemic, members of the 174th Attack Wing have fulfilled a variety of roles, including assisting with testing and vaccination sites, liaising with local organizations, and completing EMT training.
Having National Guardsmen in nursing homes is rewarding for the service members and for the residents, administrators and family members.
“Assistance from the National Guard has been extremely positive, and staff has welcomed them to the team,” said Courtney Lyon, administrator at Loretto Health and Rehab. “They have become one of us.”
Lyon said the residents welcomed the Guard members, saluted them, and thanked them for their service.
“Residents enjoy seeing the Guardsmen because they can relate, and having them around has helped to ease some of the pandemic-induced stress,” Lyon said. “The feedback from family members of residents has also been positive.”