As Coronavirus Surges in California, National Guard Soldiers Fill Staffing Gaps

U.S. Army Spc. Makayla Montz and Pfc. Marc Jules Ocampo, California National Guard medical support team members, prepare to work at a skilled nursing facility April 29, 2020. (Capt. Jason Sanchez/California National Guard)

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Soldiers from the National Guard are being deployed across the country to assist overwhelmed health departments and skilled nursing facilities hit hard by COVID-19.

Here in the Golden State, California National Guard soldiers are being stationed in nursing homes, doing everything from taking care of both residents' daily and medical needs to rearranging furniture and disinfecting facilities hit hard by the virus.

They're also traveling the state running mobile pop-up testing sites.

Colonel James Ward, the Joint Surgeon for the state National Guard, said health facilities can get strapped for staff fast. "It's unexpected, a bunch of people get exposed, and then they call the state and say, 'Hey, we need help'," he said.

That's where the National Guard comes in, with "rapid medical strike" teams of around eight to 10 people. Ward said that includes a variety of positions, including medical doctors, physician assistants, nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, even behavioral health and field medics.

More than 200 medical personnel have responded, going to 25 nursing homes, two hospitals, and two other medical centers since the virus hit. Early on in the pandemic, they had as many as 13 rapid medical strike teams spread across the state as health care facilities scrambled to staff up against the virus. Now, as staffing demands have eased it's down to five.

Ward said in general these strike teams stay at a location for 72 hours to six days to get them over the staffing crunch.

"Once they're stable, and they're good to go, we literally reset and we wait for the next mission," he said.


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Sometimes those missions can be pretty long. Captain Serenity Holden oversees a team that runs mobile COVID-19 testing centers across the state. These mobile teams have done around 20,000 tests so far.

I reached Holden at the hotel where she and her team isolate themselves when not on duty. They've been living in hotels since the beginning of May.

"I was definitely not expecting this to be a long-term assignment," she said, laughing.

And no one did. But now Holden is stationed in Sacramento County operating a high-demand drive-through testing site. "There's been lines before we got there, and we've hit our maximum capacity within two hours," she said.

Her team also set up pop-up testing sites at more than 40 nursing homes. "They have been so locked away from everyone, so that everyone seems so very happy to just to get some interaction with people," Holden said.

But she said not everyone is happy to see soldiers in uniform on their streets and in their nursing homes. Holden said some nursing homes have been worried, asking if the soldiers will show up in tanks — "are you going to show up with guns?" she said.

One Sacramento resident told a local TV news station that seeing soldiers made things more intense. People were already on edge because of the national guard presence during recent protests.

Holden said her team of soldiers who swab people for the virus try to be less intimidating. Their uniforms, for example? "They're basically pajamas. We don't have a bunch of guns," she said.

The Department of Defense says over 3,000 National Guard soldiers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19.

In California, Colonel Ward said they've had better luck. "It's not been an excessive amount, any different from what's going on in the community. We monitor that closely," he said.

But the virus shows few signs of slowing down here. Just recently, California for the first time hit more than 150 COVID-19 deaths in a single day.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.