Mass. Guard members use civilian medical training in COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Capt. Bonnie Blakely
  • Massachusetts National Guard

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — More than 180 Soldiers and Airmen from the Massachusetts National Guard with civilian medical backgrounds have been called up to serve with Task Force Raptor and join the commonwealth's fight against COVID-19.

Unique to TF Raptor, the Guard members on this mission have civilian medical training and were activated regardless of their traditional Army Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) or Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC).

"In the Guard, I am an Airfield Systems Installer and often work installing base telecommunications," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kyla Collins, TF Raptor Team Juliet. "My unit knew that I had a nursing license and therefore asked if I would be willing to function as a nurse for this mission."

In her civilian life, Collins works as an emergency department nurse in central Massachusetts. As an Airman, she serves in the 212th Engineering Installation Squadron, part of the 102nd Intelligence Wing.

"I am happy and honored to fill this role and help out the facilities that need it most," Collins said. "Even though it's not my primary AFSC, I am a nurse on the outside because I love what I do. And as a member of the National Guard, I am here to help my country and state in any capacity possible."

The task force is broken down into 11 different teams, each composed of various medical specialists, including emergency medical technicians, paramedics, certified nurse assistants, physician assistants, and registered nurses. Each team member brings a specialized background to their group, regardless of rank.

"That's another great thing about the National Guard," said Air Force Capt. Marc McAndrew, TF Raptor Team Golf, Officer in Charge. "There's a bit of a mismatch I think between our military MOSs and AFSCs and what we do on the civilian side. But we bring such a diverse set of skills that [rank] got put to the wayside very quickly."

As a civilian, McAndrew serves as a full-time firefighter EMT, and in his part-time National Guard career, he is currently the 102nd Intelligence Wing Antiterrorism Officer.

This specific task force was designed to support the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Health and Human Services by providing additional assistance to healthcare facilities across the state.

"Our main objective is to assist various nursing facilities with additional care, medical care, activities of daily living, to give the nursing homes a bit of a breather," said Air Force Capt. Eric Jividen, TF Raptor Team Kilo, Officer in Charge.

Jividen works as a civilian physician's assistant and is part of the 102nd Medical Group Detachment 1 in the Air National Guard.

Since people aged 65 and older are at the highest risk for coronavirus infection, the National Guard has been sending teams throughout the state to augment nursing home staff.

"It's been beneficial," said Jen Davis, Administrator for Sacred Heart Home in New Bedford, Mass. "I think initially just the fact that our staff felt recognized, that people felt 'Wow, there are other people out there that care and want to help us in this fight,' was energizing for people who have been working close to around the clock these days."

Having Guard members working directly with the residents and assisting with tasks within the building has been a great help and an excellent respite for some of our caregivers as well, Davis said.

The teams have been helping with various tasks, including skilled nursing care, logistics, and facility management. They have also provided personal protective equipment (PPE) control, established donning and doffing stations, and training to nursing home staff, McAndrew said.

"Our role here has been to help out with patient care and to help install PPE practices that will help the nursing staff prevent infection among the staff and prevent spreading infection between different residents at the facility," said Army Sgt. Connor Fallon, TF Raptor Team Golf.

Fallon works as a professional firefighter in his civilian job, and for the Guard, he serves as a combat medic instructor for the 101st Regiment.

This mission has allowed the residents to meet and connect with new people since they haven't had any visitors besides the nursing home staff in several weeks.

"Many of our residents here are long-term residents," Davis said. "To have additional support and have some new friendly people here to interact in their daily life and just to give them some extra cheer and extra courage has been helpful."

This mission began on April 29, when these medical professionals reported to Joint Force Headquarters to be briefed on their mission. Since then, teams mobilized across the commonwealth spend a week or more at a nursing home before being assigned to a new location.

"We're used to responding to emergencies," McAndrew said. "We're used to making quick decisions and I think that's helped us be effective very very quickly. I think that just the nature of the National Guard response model has helped us. It's been seamless. We hit the ground running."

On May 14, Gov. Charlie Baker and members of his staff gave an update on the COVID-19 virus and response in Mass., which included highlighting the ongoing medical missions by the National Guard.

"Whenever we've had a need, they just literally stepped up," said Marylou Sudders, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services. They have been heroes to us."