With COVID-19, Nebraska National Guard takes new role: flu testing

National Guardsmen at COVID-19 testing site in Grand Island. (Photo: NE National Guard)
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April 13, 2020 - 12:00pm

This week the Nebraska National Guard set up its third COVID-19 mobile testing sites in three locations around the state. The first was to determine which of the staff and juvenile residents at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney had contracted the virus. Locations in Grand Island and Kimball specifically targeted health care providers and first responders to check on their health.

This is a unique mission for the Guard. Bill Kelly spoke with Major General Daryl L. Bohac, Major Joe Eggen, Deputy Commander, Chemical/Biological Force, and Lt Col Jennifer Hasslen. Both assisted in the set up of field testing.

Donning protective gear in preparation for coronavirus testing at Nebraska State Fair Grounds.

Completing testing at drive-thru station. (Photos: Bill Kelly/NET News)

Guardsman with sampling kits.

Sanitizing testing area. (Photos: NE National Guard)



Bill Kelly, NET News: The military is renowned for running exercises preparing for so many different types of wartime scenarios and planning for natural disasters. Has the Nebraska guard ever trained for pandemic before?

General Bohac: We've not specifically trained for the pandemic. We actually have written the plans for a pandemic response and have it as part of our all-hazards plan in the Nebraska National Guard. Really, it's been a long time since we did even limited, like desktop exercises.

Kelly:  How does the reality square with your plan?

General Bohac: There are some things that we already anticipated, which is that in a pandemic, we knew to expect that the illness or the disease would move in waves through communities rather than simultaneously impact the whole state, for example. Understanding that gives you some planning room to respond in a more timely way. I think the mobile testing sites are a great example of that.

Kelly: The mobile testing sites were not something that we're necessarily part of that plan, but you adapted this scenario?

General Bohac: I think that that's a fair way to say it, but we were also able to watch other states. For example, the state of Colorado set up one of the first National Guard-supported mobile testing sites in the whole response (to the pandemic). We learned lessons from them as we went forward and had a pretty good understanding of what it would take to run a site independently in support of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kelly: Major Eggan, the Guard was asked to facilitate the testing of residents and 162 staff members at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney. What were some of the unique challenges and the logistics of setting that particular testing site up?

Major Joe Eggen (Deputy Commander, Chemical/Biological Force): We were fortunate enough to be able to transfer some of those lessons learned from Colorado for a mobile-based site. However, this was certainly a different request. So we had to adjust our plans on the fly. And because we have such well-trained airmen and soldiers, within 23 hours, we were testing at a site with a completely different plan.

Kelly: When you said you had to adjust on the fly, what type of adjustments were you encountering?

Major Eggen: So basically, we had to adjust what was a plan for a drive-thru test site to a walk-through test site and, of course, with some additional concerns based on the type of facility in regard to security and flight risk of the residents.

Kelly: How was security handled?

Major Eggen: Very well. The staff there at the facility provided all elements of security. We just conducted that day's operations within their fenced-in perimeter.

In civilian life, Lt Col Jennifer Hasslen maintains her dental practice in Omaha and teaches at Creighton University's School of Dentistry. A member of the Guard's 155th Medical Group, she volunteered to be part of the mobile coronavirus testing unit as it deployed to a parking lot at the Nebraska State Fair grounds.

Lt Col Hasslen: Bill, this has been just crazy from the very beginning. With dental practices closing down and us not really having a lot to do, it was an easy decision on my part along with another dentist that's on Team 3, along with a couple of optometrists. We volunteered. We wanted to help.

It's our privilege to be able to help these communities. And as far as medical knowledge, there isn't a great amount of medical knowledge. We all have good (knowledge) of infection control and making sure we're being safe. I would reiterate the great teamwork and the wonderful training that everyone's done, to be prepared for this. There's been nothing but professionalism. Our morale is good.

Kelly: If testing had not been part of the previous plans for the Guard, what did you encounter in carrying out the kind of medical execution of this effort?

Lt Col Hasslen: Well, it was a challenge on the first day there, but we took our cues from Health and Human Services. (They) showed up along with the public health here in Grand Island. and helped us get set up. (We) just kind of figured out what our workflow. Once we got that down to testing itself, it's really not that complicated.

Kelly: What were some of the challenges in setting up the Grand Island location and facility then?

Lt Col Hasslen: To be honest, the wind was one of our biggest challenges. We were out in an open parking lot at the State Fairgrounds. And our first day we really dealt with the wind, and that was a big issue. Our second day was better; we kind of came up with a smaller footprint to move our tents a little closer together. Use the bus to block the really strong north wind. The second day and our third day, we have moved inside. We are using the community center at the State Fairgrounds, and we have the vehicles are driving in one door and out another. So it's wonderful.

On having our first day here, we saw for responders and healthcare workers. So a lot of them have possibly been exposed, but they weren't necessarily ill or, you know, exhibiting symptoms or last two days, we have had some really sick people come through, they just don't look healthy. They're kind of struggling. So we're taking every precaution we possibly can by wearing those. Those suits and the good masks, we've all been fit tested. And I do think this has been an extraordinary opportunity for us to help out.

Kelly: There are a number of scenarios that go into emergency planning. Is supplementing staff at private hospitals as necessary one of the roles the Guard may be prepared to take on?

General Bohac: Not at hospitals. The information we've been seeing is that they have adequate staff. More of their staff are now becoming available because of stopping elective surgery procedures. So there are other folks in the community that can help augment (critical care). We're being asked to explore our ability to support, with certain levels of medical staff, isolation operations for folks that are tested positive and symptomatic but have a mild level of care requirements.

Kelly: Explain what that would entail, what those types of operations would entail.

General Bohac: It's using pre-identified facilities where these folks could go because there's not a need for them for acute care hospitalization. But they don't have a place to go, where they can safely isolate at home or elsewhere.  (They could) be absorbed into these facilities and have some level of medical supervision with a low level of care requirements doesn't require full staff.

Kelly: What about support for the state's correctional facilities if additional security or medical assistance is needed?

General Bohac: (Department of Correctional Services) Director Frakes and I have been in contact. There's not an express requirement so far. It's something we are thinking about, but that would be in a definite different mission for us in terms of providing correctional support.

Kelly: These are circumstances where there might be any number of different missions are there other non-traditional you're being asked to explore?

General Bohac: I would have to say, not really at this time. We're into some traditional things which are to offer planner support to different parts of the enterprise that are responding to COVID-19.

We've gotten a request to support the distribution of personal protective equipment and other items from the state warehouses out. That's in process and this pending approval, but really, it's the missions we've been talking about

Kelly: Major Eggan what lessons have been learned (from setting up the testing sites) that would help facilitate civilians running testing sites or what you would pass along to other Guard units around the country?

Major Eggen: My key lesson learned here is just to continue trusting the way that we train. Our soldiers and airmen are very used to training in much higher levels of (protective equipment). So, being able to trust that equipment and our decontamination procedures to ensure everyone's safety is has been paramount to being able to be successful.

Kelly: General, have there been confirmed cases among guards and already need to self-quarantine as a precaution that you're aware of.

General Bohac:  So we have not had any COVID-19 positive cases. So far. We do have people that have returned either from out of state or from training or personal travel who, based on public health department directives, have self-quarantined. So far, we have not had a positive COVID-19 test in the Nebraska National Guard.

Major Eggen: I would just say that every one of the individuals, whether Army or Air Guard that are out on these sites, volunteered to do this. (This might be) their second or third or 10th time volunteering. When each of us decides to become National Guardsmen, whether it be Army or Air, this is the reason we do it. It's to be able to support our citizens and our state's infrastructure when times are difficult.

Kelly: There might be an assumption that when you sign on for the National Guard, they can tell you what to do that this is part of your mission and go do it. What makes this voluntary and could it have been mandatory?

General Bohac: It is possible that the governor could elect to order units in the state into active duty to meet a threat. We've not had to do that. When people sign up today, they want to do this. We want to serve their state but also serve their nation. We've always done this under a volunteer status and exceptionally proud of the team about that.



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