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Pennsylvania Guard Launches COVID-19 Testing Task Force

June 8, 2020 | BY ARMY STAFF SGT. ZANE CRAIG , Pennsylvania National Guard

The Pennsylvania National Guard has assembled a task force to conduct point prevalence sampling at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the commonwealth.

The sampling is being conducted at the direction of the Pennsylvania Department of Health to provide logistics, planning and personnel to test all residents and staff at identified facilities for COVID-19 infection.

The health department identified a need for increased testing of residents in long-term care facilities, many of which lack the staff or resources to conduct a comprehensive test. The Guard is able to provide medically trained personnel to fill this gap.

Two service members put on blue personal protective equipment.
Gearing Up
Army Spc. Dominique Dalessio.left, and Army Sgt. Shane Brandes, right, adjust their face shields and personal protective equipment in preparation to begin administering COVID-19 tests at the Lancashire Hall Nursing and Rehab Center in Lancaster, Pa., May 19, 2020. Under Pennsylvania Department of Health guidance, and monitored by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, Pennsylvania National Guardsmen with Task Force Ghostrider launched a point prevalence sampling strike team in Lancaster. The mission is designed to identify possible risks of exposure to COVID-19 by testing the staff and residents. This is the first in the pilot program that will reach out across the state.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. George Roach
VIRIN: 200519-F-QH938-732M

"Nursing homes have been the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, because they include one of the most at-risk demographics in a community living environment," Army Maj. Matthew Gabler, the medical operations officer with the Pennsylvania National Guard's Military Medical Planning Team, said. "Increased testing is intended to provide better data to understand the problem in order to implement better, targeted infection control measures to protect Pennsylvania's most vulnerable citizens."

When the health department identifies a facility to test, the first step is for the medical team to schedule a site survey, which enables a military medical provider partnered with a civilian representative from the health department to validate the need and ensure conditions are suitable for the mission.

"Then, the site survey results are shared with [the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the health department], who review and confirm the mission assignment," Gabler said. Once the mission assignment is made, the regional Pennsylvania task force takes the lead on executing the mission, he added. They identify the team to complete the mission and coordinate logistics and supplies.

Soldiers wearing personal protective equipment pose with their arms folded.
Group Photo
Under Pennsylvania Department of Health guidance, and closely monitored by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, Pennsylvania National Guardsmen with Task Force Iroquois launched a point prevalence sampling strike team in Kendal-Crosslands Communities, Kennet Square, Pa., May 26, 2020. The mission is designed to identify possible risks of exposure to COVID-19 by testing the staff and residents of the facility. This is part of a series pilot program that will reach out across the state.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. George Roach
VIRIN: 200526-F-QH938-380M

Once the mission is assigned to a task force, the task force works directly with the facility to schedule the point prevalence sampling team's arrival time, Gabler said.

"Based on availability of Guard personnel and the facility's schedule, the time from site survey to mission start can be as little as 3 to 5 days," he continued.

The Guard's domestic response forces are coordinated through three regional and two functional task forces; North, South, West, Support and Aviation. Task Force-North and Task Force-West each have one point-prevalence-sampling team of about 12 members, while Task Force-South, in south-central Pennsylvania and the populous Philadelphia region, has two teams.

"We're testing every patient and every employee in the facility, and we're doing it in an efficient manner," Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Sondra Mendelsohn, a medical officer and physician with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 111th Attack Wing, said. "We're getting in and out in a day or so and getting these people some answers, so I think that's been really helpful for them and a big accomplishment for us."

Four men clad in black and wearing face masks listen as a man wearing full personal protective equipment briefs them.
Group Photo
Air Force Col. Adam Colombo, a senior medical advisor for Task Force South, trains Task Force Iroquois personnel on proper personal protective equipment procedures at Hickory House Nursing Home in Honey Brook, Pa., May 22, 2020. Under Pennsylvania Department of Health guidance, and closely monitored by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, Pennsylvania National Guardsmen with Task Force Iroquois launched a point prevalence sampling strike team at the facility. The mission is designed to identify possible risks of exposure to COVID-19 by testing the staff and residents. This is one of the first in a series pilot program that will reach out across the state.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. George Roach
VIRIN: 200522-F-QH938-010M

Mendelsohn and her team conducted testing at Hickory House Nursing Home in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, May 22, in one of the sampling team's first missions. The team's first mission took place at Gino Merli Veterans Center on May 18 before expanding to civilian facilities. So far, the Guard has conducted point prevalence sampling at seven locations and has two more scheduled.

"We're super passionate about what we're doing here," Army Pfc. Roland McClune, who is helping to perform the tests, said. "We understand these are people's parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, so we want to treat them like we would treat our own."