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Guardsmen support Washington Health Department with COVID-19 mapping

Guardsmen support Washington Health Department with COVID-19 mapping

Esther Lam, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) discusses procedures of the COVID-19 mapping mission with Washington Army National Guard 1st Lt. Jack Eisaman, a Physicians Assistant, May 15, 2020 at the DOH offices at Tumwater, Wash. The Washington National Guard is supporting the DOH prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Washington prepares to move to re-opening parts of the state. (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. John Hughel, Washington Air National Guard Public Affairs

Tumwater, WA -- As the State of Washington continues to work toward slowing and preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, members of the Washington National Guard are supporting Washington State Department of Health workers with voluntary COVID-19 mapping.

“We are not focused on tracking the individual, we’re actually tracking the virus,” said Washington Air National Guard Lt. Col. Christopher Panush, Task Force Kokanee Officer in Charge. “COVID-19 mapping is really what we are after; tracking where the virus might spread throughout the communities while working with the Department of Health.”

The information collected is entered into a secure DOH database that allows health officials to better understand where the virus is spreading and notify those at risk. Ultimately, the knowledge will help support the roll back of the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation issued March 23, 2020 by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“When we started working with the Department of Health to find out what their objectives are, we formed a planning team,” said Panush, describing the process of bringing National Guard staff and assets to help support DOH. “It’s been very humbling to work with their staff of PH.Ds and epidemiologists as we brought together Army and Air National Guard resources in one place and then making it all work.”

The DOH is asking for those who test positive for COVID-19 to voluntarily provide the names and contact information of individuals who may have come in contact with them. The National Guard is assisting in the effort, as the DOH is the lead agency for this voluntary data collection.

In describing the process of COVID-19 mapping, Panush emphasized all the information belongs to DOH. “The important aspect is that they (Guardsmen) will ask the person, the individual that has the disease, are they willing to be contacted?” he said. “If the answer is yes then their information will go into the Department of Health’s secure database and it’s assigned a case number.”

Once the case number is established by the epidemiology department at DOH, the case is then distributed to the call workers, who are a combination of Department of Health, Department of Licensing and Washington National Guard personnel.

“The questions during the phone calls are very scripted,” said Panush. “The caller will ask the individuals a series of questions and try and establish where they have been in the past 14 days. But again, the information is completely voluntary.”

The preparation for the new mapping mission by the National Guard started on May 5, with an initial group of 45 service members who have completed all three phases of the training.

“The first two phases can be completed online, and we have more than 700 service members that have completed those parts,” said Air National Guard Chaplain Brian Banke, who serves as the training officer for the COVID-19 mapping team.

“There’s always some challenges when you’re learning to speak with other agencies but that’s the great thing about assigning tasks to Soldiers and Airmen; they’re always pretty adaptable,” said Banke.

A unique aspect with Banke being a military chaplain and running the training plan is that when not in uniform, he teaches at a private Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) school as well as doctorial students at the Faith International University & Seminary in Tacoma.

“In my private life I am working with a variety of students from those on doctoral level to those who are working toward a high school degree,” he said. “So a key part of this training is establishing appropriate interviewing skills. Empathy is important but these people I’m working with are absolute professionals.”

Being part of the first trained team, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Cameron Coil said that when the call for volunteers came he wasn’t sure about the mission at first. “When I realized we would be helping out the state, it made it a much more interesting mission.”

Washington Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Cameron Coil, I-Company, 181st Brigade Support Battalion logs onto a network device before making a COVID-19 mapping call at the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) offices Tumwater, Wash., on May 15, 2020. The Washington National Guard is supporting the DOH prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Washington prepares to move to re-opening parts of the state. (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. John Hughel, Washington Air National Guard Public Affairs)

“There was a lot of information put out in the early training, but when we started touching the actual system, we realized, ‘hey we covered this already,'” said Coil. “Overall the training was really good.”

Building the entire team, plan and training brought a pioneering effort from everyone involved in this new mission. It was Army and Air Guardsmen blending military proficiencies while providing the assets for the DOH.

“In some ways we abandoned what we normally do to build something new that fits this mission,” said Panush. “This is uncharted territory, but we are blessed with great people on the team.”

As more service members finish their training, the mission can grow based on need if cases begin to rise. This is where the National Guard is particularly well-positioned.

“I have a diverse team, everything from a physician assistant to a wheeled vehicle mechanic,” said Panush. “We’re neighbors with the people we talk to on the phone, we volunteer to serve in this capacity and we are wired to help both our partner agencies and our communities here in Washington.”