Va. National Guardsmen deployed for COVID-19 testing at long-term care facilities

MSgt. Stephen Legge, with the Virginia National Guard, gets swabbed for COVID-19 as part of...
MSgt. Stephen Legge, with the Virginia National Guard, gets swabbed for COVID-19 as part of training for their coronavirus response. | Credit: NBC12(WHSV)
Published: May. 5, 2020 at 11:11 AM EDT
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More than 100 Virginia National Guardsmen have deployed across the state to assist in COVID-19 testing.

Since April 27, six teams have traveled across the commonwealth after receiving extensive training at Waller Depot in Henrico County.

“As of this morning, we’ve done 2,411 tests,” said Major Andrew Czaplicki with the VA Army National Guard. “Again, we have two teams out [today] so we expect that number to grow by about 310 or so."

This comes as Governor Ralph Northam has called for significantly more testing, especially in long-term care facilities.

“There’s a definite need for us, there’s a capacity level we’re trying to get to across the state,” Czaplicki said. “There are some localities that need help and we’re trying to offer that help and be the good neighbor.”

Since the first teams were deployed, crews have completed testing at 11 long-term care facilities who contacted their local health departments or emergency management to get their residents and staff tested.

That includes long-term care facilities in the Shenandoah Valley.

"We should be able to do about one long-term care facility a day,” Czaplicki said. “Which adds to the state's testing capacity, which generally will be about 1,000 a day."

Altogether, in Virginia, testing has increased over the past week to about 5,000 tests processed a day. That number includes tests from the state lab, as well as hospitals and private labs, all of which have their own capacity.

However, before these men and women step foot in long-term care facilities to provide more tests, they must go through extensive training.

“The process is three personnel that we’re calling a ‘Point Prevalence Sampling Team’,” Czaplicki said.

The team breaks down as follows:

• Swab taker: In charge of taking the swab from the patient.

• Sample handler: Takes the swab from the swab taker. This makes sure the swab taker does not contaminate their hands with the sample.

“They put that in a sealed plastic bag, zip tie it shut, validate the information on the swab and the bag are all the same so that when it goes to the testing it speeds up the process,” Czaplicki said.

• Radio operator: Control the individual sanitation and decontamination on site.

“Lots of hand sanitizer, lots of new gloves,” Czaplicki said. “If there’s something on the mask they wipe it off with some bleach wipes, and if they’re wearing booties they replace the booties so we’re not traveling room to room potentially carrying the COVID.”

There are four ‘Point Prevalence Sample Teams’ per the six teams currently deployed across the Commonwealth.

“Every Point Prevalence Sampling we do can save lives,” Czaplicki added. “It provides the hospital administrators and the facility administrators with the needed data to identify those who need additional medical support and those who need to be further isolated and quarantined so they can continue to get through this together.”

"Point prevalence," Gov. Northam's staff have explained in prior briefings, means that every single person in a facility – residents and staff – is tested at the same time, capturing where COVID-19 stands at that particular point in time.

Additionally, there are soldiers and airmen who are providing decontamination efforts after the testing is done.

“This is to make sure we're not bringing in any of the COVID out of the facility and potentially contaminating ourselves or the next facility,” Czaplicki said.

While the training does happen mostly on mannequins, the guardsmen also have an opportunity to test on each other.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll feel it for the rest of the day just as a phantom tickle,” said Sergeant Stephen Legge, with the Virginia Air Force National Guard.

Legge oversees the care of these men and women doing the testing, but volunteered for them to train on him.

"I wanted to make sure I knew what I was asking people to do or what these facilities were asking," Legge said. “We’re taking a very long testing device, a swab, and they’re going up the nostril and pretty much tickling the back of your sinus,” Czaplicki said. “When you do that, it kind of makes you want to sneeze and your face cringes up because there’s a foreign object up your nose.”

Based on the training, the swab should take roughly 10 to 15 seconds.

While these guardsmen know the test will be an uncomfortable one, they’re also focused on making sure the patients remain calm and comfortable, especially since they’re testing the older population in nursing homes.

"These are their grandparents, their neighbor’s grandparents,” Czaplicki said. “We want to treat them with the utmost respect possible and really just have some patience, because we're not in a hurry. We want to make sure we're doing things methodically and we don't want to rush anyone into making a sudden movement."

The samples collected from the facilities are sent to laboratories determined by the locality that requested the help.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virginia National Guard has received missions from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

“Localities looking for National Guard support should submit their requests to VDEM for evaluation and follow up,” a news release said.

In addition to COVID-19 testing, soldiers and airmen are also delivering personal protective equipment, conducting training on proper use of PPE and conducting N-95 respirator mask fit testing.

“We’ve trained just over 500,” Czaplicki said.

The mask fit testing for staff members at long-term care facility started on April 24.

As of April 29, more than 530 Virginia National Guard personnel are actively working or ready to support the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response. Several guardsmen are assisting and helping with logistic in multiple Virginia Department of Emergency Management regions.

“I am extremely proud of the great work from our personnel supporting Virginia’s COVID-19 response, and I know we are putting their skills, experience and knowledge to good work where it is making a difference,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. “We are now posturing forces to be able to provide additional capabilities to help our fellow Virginians, and we will continue to work with our state agency partners to make sure any support we can provide will be ready when it is needed.”