FARGO — Members of the North Dakota National Guard have joined others on the front lines for weeks now in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, putting themselves at risk for exposure while doing so.
Soldiers and airmen have fanned out statewide to help when called on by state and local health departments or the Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force. They’ve served as part of mobile testing teams in various locales, including the Cass County Jail and a transitional housing facility in downtown Fargo on May 19, and for mass testing outside the Alerus Center in Grand Forks on May 14 and the Fargodome on April 25.
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Lt. Col. Dwight Harley is a physician assistant provider for the Guard’s team on the eastern side of the state. He said the response from people they’ve helped has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We've had people that were crying because this is scary,” he said of the virus, adding that testing often eases their anxiety.
Guard members are also doing the less visible but equally important work of deep-cleaning congregate living facilities, including nursing homes, whose populations are especially at risk for COVID-19.
Brig. Gen. Bob Schulte, chief of staff for the Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Bismarck, said it’s part of being a citizen soldier or airman.
“You do a mission in your own state to help your community and your family. That’s why they signed up in the first place,” he said.
Health care covered
The COVID-19 mission is entirely voluntary and a health screening is required before Guard members are onboarded. Lt. Jennifer Anderson said because of that, it’s unlikely anyone who might be at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 would be involved.
Those doing this work for more than 30 days are on Title 32 orders, or considered active duty.
Approximately 225 in North Dakota are currently under those orders, Schulte said. As such, they’re covered under TRICARE, the health care program for uniformed service members, should they get COVID-19 during the course of the mission. They would go into a 14-day quarantine, during which time they would be paid, he said.
Citing privacy regulations and operational security, Schulte wouldn’t say whether any North Dakota Guard members have come down with COVID-19. Several have requested they be tested, however, after having close contact with someone who’s been exposed or been confirmed positive.
A job that's not for everyone
When he’s not involved with a North Dakota National Guard mission, Harley teaches in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont.
He said the mass COVID-19 testing team he’s part of shows up to an event several hours in advance to do preparatory work. Military Police handle traffic control and patient intake information, while noncommissioned officers hand out personal protective equipment, or PPE, and take care of coolers that keep test samples viable for the trip to the state lab in Bismarck.
Physician assistants and medics are responsible for doing the swabbing.
Everyone uses PPE, but the latter group gets the highest levels of protection due to their close proximity. That includes an N95 or N100 mask covered by a face shield, a protective gown and three pairs of gloves. The bottom two layers of gloves are taped to their gowns, while the top pair comes off and is replaced after each test, Harley said.
The tasks, involving a highly contagious and dangerous virus, are ones that not many people are willing to do.
“A lot of my civilian colleagues said, ‘I couldn't do that. That sounds dangerous,’” Harley said.
“That’s what we train for,” Anderson added.
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