NEWS | April 15, 2020

W.Va. Guard Powerful Force Multiplier for West Virginia COVID-19 Epidemiological Response

By Edwin L. Wriston

The West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) is working closely with local, state and federal partners to assist in every step of COVID-19 epidemiological response efforts, including the collection, testing and monitoring processes for COVID-19 specimen samples as part of a whole-of-government response approach in West Virginia.

Around the state, members of the WVNG are helping with traffic control, swabbing, and collection of testing samples at collection points, providing transportation of specimens to testing laboratories, as well as back-end logistical and operational support. This includes the collection and delivery of high-priority specimen from county health departments that do not have local on-site testing capabilities, which are collected and delivered to the state lab through coordination with regional epidemiologists for testing and result reporting.

To facilitate this statewide need, the WVNG has teams of personnel on the ground in each of the six WVDHHR surveillance regions, working with regional epidemiologists, county health departments, first responders, and local agencies to streamline workflow and alleviate response workload demands. 

“The WVNG is providing a diverse group of Soldiers and Airmen, including those with medical training, to help streamline and supplement manpower requirements,” stated Capt. Logan Cottrill, Intelligence Officer with the 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) “Having members with medical backgrounds, that are subject matter experts, and that understand and can translate medical terminology easily, allows us to rapidly integrate with local healthcare and epidemiological teams and strengthen their ranks efficiently and successfully.”

One such Citizen-Soldier assisting in the statewide response and providing a critical skillset from his civilian career is Warrant Officer 1 Dana Dandeneau, a member of the 772nd Aviation Troop Command. When not training to fly helicopters in uniform, Dandeneau is an epidemiologist for the state of North Carolina.

“I received my degree from West Virginia University and have been an epidemiologist in North Carolina since 2018. Being a pilot, I never thought I would see a perfect intersection where my civilian skills and expertise would be an active part of Guard service,” Dandeneau said. “I think it speaks to one of the inherent strengths of the National Guard, that we have so many different Soldiers and Airmen with such diverse skill sets that contribute and bring expertise to play in any given crisis or response effort.”

“People see the videos and stories of the National Guard testing people and swabbing them and they think that’s all we are doing, so it is cool to be able to tell some of the background stories such as the epidemiology side of things and how we are involved behind the scenes,” he added.

Collecting COVID-19 testing samples from citizens and responders is only the first step in monitoring and attempting to control the pandemic outbreak. A whole host of additional steps, including on-going monitoring and contact tracing efforts, help local and state officials combat the disease.

Once a person is confirmed to be COVID-19 positive, WVNG personnel assist local officials with manual data entry to enable the effectiveness of data aggregation and analysis into the West Virginia Electronic Disease Surveillance System (WVEDSS), a web-based electronic reporting system. Then the real work begins; contact tracing.

Once a positive case is identified, that person is contacted and interviewed. The person is asked to disclose their recent travels/activities and possible contacts during those activities. This helps to track the actual/potential spread of the virus and can help trace where they may have either gotten the virus from or spread the virus to.

The goal, Cottrill stated, is to act as quickly as possible to locate common disease vector locations, as well as help to greatly reduce the potential spread of the virus by notifying those who might need to self-quarantine.

“Letting those with potential contact with a COVID-19 confirmed positive individual know they may have been exposed, letting them know what it means to them, and giving them the recommended guidance from the epidemiologist office of what to do right now and over the next couple weeks is a critical element in helping calm fears and encouraging positive outcomes,” said Cottrill. “We provide folks with resources that they can utilize to monitor symptoms, and if they do happen to become symptomatic, what they need to do in order to get tested or receive further assessment from a medical provider.”

Upon notification of potential exposure, individuals are given the opportunity to enroll in an automated 14-day reporting system that allows for daily tracking of potential symptoms. If the individual begins to display symptoms, they are immediately referred to their local medical provider for further evaluation and potentially testing.

In addition to operational level support at the local level, WVNG members are supporting the strategic level actions of the state WVDHHR offices, offering support and information to state level decision makers.

“We are here to help guide priorities and help contribute to the processes and procedures of the response,” Cottrill said. “What the process has shown us, is that the COVID-19 response is breaking all the standards and norms that people are used to abiding by. The scope and the volume that they (WVDHHR Bureau for Public Health) are facing now is pretty unprecedented. They are having to be extremely flexible and adaptive. What we are doing is trying to identify shortfalls in protocols and action plans and how to streamline processes.  Also, we are helping to identify resource shortfalls whether it is equipment or human capitol. Building the playbook at the strategic level as it happens to benefit those on the ground.”

And those efforts are being noticed. Recently, staffers of Congressional Representatives working on phase IV of the federal stimulus bill contacted the WVNG to see how West Virginia is facilitating contact tracing. As the federal government weighs its options for facilitating contact tracing at the state and local levels, law makers looked to West Virginia as a best practices model to formulate a national strategy.

The WVNG’s ability to quickly and professionally surge flexible capacity as a true force multiplier providing manpower, logistics, and to effectively apply resources across all 55 counties of the state is helping West Virginia to flatten the curve and reduce negative impacts of the pandemic.