When a Nevada National Guard contingent rolled up to Washoe County’s COVID-19 testing site at the Reno Livestock Events Center early on an April morning, overworked and overwhelmed front-line responders felt like the defenders of the Alamo witnessing the arrival of a division of battle-ready reinforcements.
“We were all in awe,” said Wes Rubio, an environmental health specialist supervisor for the Washoe County Health District. “Up to that point we were stretched thin, tired and our brains were fried. We were lucky if we had time to eat a cup of noodles because we were so busy.” At the time, county officials were worried they would soon have to make hard choices with people’s health – and lives — in the balance.
“People may not truly understand the physical and emotional toll that we felt with our work, but I can say that the National Guard’s presence and professionalism lifted (county health division) staff and recharged our efforts,” Rubio said.
By mid-April, 1,150 citizen soldiers were deployed around the Silver State to assist in the pandemic response, making it the Guard’s largest state activation in history. Over the past eight months, the soldiers and airmen have assisted at county drive-through virus testing sites and set up dozens of others throughout Nevada, including in remote areas of the state. The Guard members also work on disease investigation, mapping, contact-tracing, data entry and call center teams.
Activation extended to March
The Guard’s presence and professionalism boosted morale and recharged the county’s efforts, Rubio said. “No one would have predicted that from our first meeting we would still be standing alongside the National Guard on a daily basis,” he said. “…Without their help, dedication, and willingness we would not have been as successful in providing the necessary help to the community.”
The Nevada Guard’s activation was slated to end this month just as COVID-19 cases and deaths set records in the Silver State and are predicted to continue to surge. Then last week, in an 11th-hour reversal, the Trump administration authorized the extension of the Guard’s role in fighting the pandemic until March 31, with the federal government picking up 75% of the costs and the state covering the remaining 25%.
President-elect Joe Biden last month promised to restore 100% funding to state’s National Guard deployments. Guard members interviewed last week said they will continue to volunteer for whatever needs to be done.
“They play a pretty critical role,” said Capt. Titus Roberson, the ranking Nevada Air Guard officer at the Washoe County testing site. “The mission has had a few extensions and (the soldiers and airmen) keep coming back. I think everyone understands the importance of what they are doing out there. It’s about service to the community during a crisis. We always have people who are more than willing to step up.”
A multitude of missions
As of Dec. 1, there were 238 Guard members on duty in Southern Nevada and 131 in the northern part of the state, in addition to 17 planners and leadership staff members across Nevada.
So far, Air and Army National Guard members have distributed more than 2 million K/N95 masks, 3.5 million surgical masks, 8.3 million pairs of gloves and 1.1 million Tyvek shields. They also delivered about 2.9 million meals and administered more than 1.1 million virus tests.
Dozens of Guard members have contracted COVID-19. Some who have recovered went right back to duty. The volunteers from Air Guard and Army Guard units from around the state are at work daily, including weekends and holidays.
Nevada’s unique response
By all accounts, the Guard’s involvement in the crisis has eased the pressure on first responders, helped residents stay healthy and, presumably, even saved some lives. In utilizing the Guard, Nevada took a different approach than most other states.
“National Guard units in other states built and operated their own testing sites,” said Lt. Brenna Keegan, of the Reno-based 152nd Airlift Wing Medical Group. “Our first thought was to follow that lead. But when we saw what Washoe County was doing with its testing site, we came to the consensus that the better course would be to help augment their efforts. We could give the nurses a break who had been working nonstop since March. We could supply the bodies they needed.”
“Nevada built something special and unique to our state in incorporating our response into the community’s rather than running our own separate thing,” she said. “We weren’t hung up on running some sort of militaristic site. This gave us a chance to blend with the community and put our best foot forward.” — Lt. Brenda Keegan, medic, 152nd Airlift Wing.
Nearly all the Guard members involved are citizen-soldiers, rather than full-time Guardsmen. In civilian life they labor in casinos, offices, retail stores, shops, medical facilities and other businesses. Some have been laid off from their jobs or are on furloughs; others get time off to serve with their Guard units.
The servicemen and women belong to medical, engineering, MP and other military companies, but they got specialized training for their new mission. In the battle with COVID-19, they also had to apply lessons about human nature they learned before they put on a uniform.
Putting patients at ease
“A lot of people are nervous when they come to get tested,” said Senior Airman Drysol Brandon, 22, a chemistry major at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has worked as a medic at the Reno Livestock Events Center and other testing sites throughout Nevada. “Some are kind of scared and that’s understandable. COVID testing is not normal. It’s a new process for everybody.”
Part of his job is to put the patients at ease. “It helps to explain everything, like how far the swab will go (into the nose) and how it may feel like a tickle rather than pain. We explain when they will get their results back… We don’t want to be strict, cold and clinical. It’s more like a normal conversation. That helps a lot.”
Brandon, who is in charge of a testing team in the Quad-County area of Douglas, Carson, Lyon and Storey counties, said about 200 people per day were tested at those sites during the summer, but the tests started to ramp up in November. “We can see about 500 people a day now,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a two-hour job, but we get there an hour early and then stay an hour later to get to everyone who is still in line.”
Working with Nevada’s tribes
The state’s rural and remote areas get special attention. Guard members set up testing sites at tribal locations across Nevada, where they also helped distribute food or provide medical and logistical support to tribal members.
This summer, the Guard set up and operated 27 drive-thru collection sites — 10 of them on tribal land. The teams collected more than 10,000 test swabs in rural and tribal communities.
Nevada Army Guard Spc. Jermaine Longmire, of the 609th Engineer Company, a casino worker, has assisted tribal communities around the state, from the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe in Nye County to the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe along Nevada’s border with Oregon. He prepared for the job by learning words and phrases in the Paiute and Shoshone languages.
Overcoming cultural hurdles
“I’ve especially enjoyed working with the tribes because of the people and relationships I’ve made,” said Longmire, 25, who was tutored in tribal languages and culture from Cassandra Darrough, former tribal emergency preparedness coordinator at the Nevada Division of Emergency Management.
“We can’t just walk in (to a reservation) and say, ‘Hey, fellow Americans. …’ There are different cultural elements we need to be aware of,” said 2nd Lt. Kim Garback, Longmire’s boss. “ …We want to help them on their terms, and that includes understanding their culture and language before we enter any of the 27 tribal nations in Nevada.”
Longmire said he discovered his proclivity for languages when he went to Thailand and learned enough of that nation’s language to act as an interpreter. On Dec. 5, he was among a team of Guard members conducting drive-through testing at a site in Wadsworth on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.
Speaking ancient tongues
“Not many people speak Paiute,” Longmire said. “Usually, it’s a few elders, but some young tribal members do too and it’s taught at UNR. I enjoy learning the language and Cassandra (Darrough) has been a really cool mentor… I want to know about people’s language and culture. It makes it easier to communicate with people and it shows them that you are willing to put in the effort.”
He also has learned some words and phrases in the Shoshone language.
Alfreida Jake, environmental coordinator and emergency manager for the Elko Band of the Te-moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, said her community began to worry about COVID-19 after a resident tested positive for the virus in early July. “We sent out a declaration to our people and put a curfew on,” she said. “That’s when everybody started getting afraid of it.”
Jake called the Nevada Division of Emergency Management. A week later, members of the Guard set up a collection site. “(Spec. Longmire) talked with our people and wasn’t shy,” Jake said. “He went that extra mile to learn. I was impressed with the Guard.”
Keeping the spread contained
Medics at rural and tribal sites test people whether or not they have any symptoms of infection. The goal is to pinpoint outbreaks quickly before they spread.
“Testing is important because it’s impossible to fight an enemy without knowing where it is,” said Darrough. “How do you defend your community if you don’t know where the illness is or where it’s moving?”
She said that thanks to “the assistance and support of the Guard, and from emergency management, our tribes are building capacity to test on their own as well as continue to provide support to their communities.”
Support will continue
Nevada is expected to receive its first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of December. The Guard will continue to provide support for existing testing, tracing and other operations. It also may have a role in vaccine distribution next year, officials said.
Lt. Col. Brett Compston, director of the Nevada Guard’s Joint and Domestic Operations section, said Guard members, EMTs, doctors, nurses, technicians and other front-line responders can’t defeat COVID-19 without help from every Nevadan.
Testing, contract tracing and PPE distribution can’t do the job alone, he said. COVID-19 will continue to spread unless the public “embraces all aspects of strict adherence to social distancing and protective measures,” he said. Everyone is on the front lines of the public health battle.
“Nevadans must work together to combat this fiend,” Compston said. “It’s not about politics. It’s about doing the right thing to help your neighbors and quicken our return to normalcy.”
Nevada Air National Guard 1st Lt. Emerson Marcus and Nevada Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Erick R. Studenicka contributed to this story.