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By Tech. Sgt. Kasey Phipps
Oklahoma National Guard
Waiting for the tip-off of an already delayed Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz NBA game, Oklahomans — including those in attendance, those watching live from home and especially those on social media — sensed something was not quite right on the evening of March 11, 2020.
After a long delay, the nationally televised game was canceled and the NBA released the following statement on its website:
“NEW YORK – The NBA announced that a player on the Utah Jazz has preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. The test result was reported shortly prior to the tip-off of tonight’s game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. At that time, tonight’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.
The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice. The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Shortly following, the Oklahoma State Department of Health released this:
“Those who were in attendance at the game are not at risk of catching COVID-19. As a reminder, COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets. Only individuals who are in close contact with a person with COVID-19 would be at risk of exposure.
As we are all aware, COVID-19 is present in Oklahoma. If you are planning to attend a large public event, please check with the event organizers for information in case the event is postponed or cancelled.”
The cancellation of the game was the first high-profile event cancellation in Oklahoma. Despite the State’s first case of COVID-19 being reported earlier in the week on March 6, 2020, the game served as the first real concrete evidence of the possible and wider impact of the pandemic for many in Oklahoma.
March 16 saw more closures, including cancellation of schools, a “Shelter in Place” order in Oklahoma City, and a Declaration of Civil Emergency in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the State’s first case. A “Safer At Home” order was then declared for the entire State, March 24, which centered on adults over the age of 65 and all those considered part of the State’s vulnerable populations.
“Things were coming at us so fast,” said Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. “We were seeing stuff happening in New York and other states that were a little bit ahead of us in where we were in the outbreak. I just wanted to get organized with our information, and I wasn't getting a good, consistent flow of information … And so we called up the [Oklahoma National] Guard to set up an information briefing so I could strategically put National Guardsmen around the State. That was instrumental in our fight in Oklahoma against COVID-19.”
The Joint Task Force: the center of the “Swiss Army knife”
The Oklahoma National Guard Joint Task Force (JTF), which joined with the Governor’s staff and other State agencies to form the Governor’s Solution Task Force, was activated in response to the growing number of cases in Oklahoma and the U.S. as a whole. With the Oklahoma State Department of Health as the lead agency, more than 50 members of the Oklahoma National Guard’s JTF laid the groundwork for a wider potential response — one that would end up being one of the longest sustained domestic operations by the Oklahoma National Guard in Oklahoma’s history.
“The truth of the matter is the Guard … is like a Swiss army knife,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, adjutant general for Oklahoma. “You know, there are so many things that we can do, and there are so many ways that we can fill gaps that have become apparent in the community. We went to work. We filled those gaps, and I think it was the Governor's very first exposure to that, aside from the floods in 2019, and I think very quickly he started seeing the capabilities of the Army and Air National Guard. I think he's very pleased with what we were able to bring to help fight against COVID-19.”
Added to the six full-time staff who man the Joint Operations Center normally, as well as members of the joint staff who work there on drill weekends, the activated JTF was made up of experts from a wide range of disciplines, such as logistics, communications, personnel, operations, intelligence, plans, finance, and even special staff like chaplains, law and public affairs. For the pandemic, those with overlapping experience in applicable career fields as civilians were added too, including public health officials, first responders and emergency managers.
“This is a concept that I call a cross-domain competency,” explained Oklahoma Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Tommy Mancino, commander of the Governor’s Solution Task Force. “And by that, I mean in the National Guard, we have people that have experiences and expertise across multiple domains. Not only is the new health commissioner for the State of Oklahoma the pandemic’s lead agency manager, but he’s also an Air Guard colonel.”
At first, the Guard’s response was largely information-based and centered around the JTF, which is part of the Multi-Agency Coordination Center, or MAC.
“What was lacking here was a mechanism, a command and control structure, if you will, or really an ability for the Governor to receive that information that was aggregated and synthesized to allow him to make decisions,” Mancino said. “So the MAC is really the official term as the executive policy group under the process, the emergency management process, that we use. Really that was the plan, to just provide the Governor with a single point of information and inquiry where he could make decisions that impacted the whole State.”
Gov. Stitt confirmed the effectiveness of that plan saying, "We had calls with the White House every single week from the Vice President, the President, and their leadership who was advising the President. Consistently, they wanted to talk to me about how we utilize the Guard, because our data was more accurate than any other state. That's just a shout-out to how we utilize the National Guard in Oklahoma to get good, accurate data, and make sure that we were fighting this pandemic correctly.”
Supporting the number one objective — Oklahomans
As more information was gathered and analyzed, other needs throughout the State became apparent. With close consideration from both the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Oklahoma National Guard, Stitt activated 175 members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard, April 13, 2020, to support the State’s increased response to COVID-19.
“The Governor has authorized 175 Soldiers and Airmen into the COVID-19 response in direct support of his number one objective, which is ensuring that Oklahomans are taken care of during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Mancino said April 13.
During the week of April 17-23, there were 660 new confirmed reported cases in Oklahoma with a total of 3,017 from the first case to the end of that week, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s weekly COVID-19 report. As cases grew, the Oklahoma National Guard was responsible for several missions, which varied throughout the overall response in support of the 11 identified COVID-19 regional health administration locations in the State.
“I think it's important to recognize that they (the missions) kind of grew organically,” continued Mancino. “The one thing we knew early on was that, or that we suspected, was that the potential downside to this pandemic was great … The State’s response was really just to get a handle on where the State of Oklahoma was. Although we have these institutions and structures within the State to handle emergencies, they really are geared, in all honesty, to the smaller geographic and time-related incidents.”
Typical examples of these smaller and finite incidents are natural disasters, such as tornadoes, floods, ice storms, hurricanes and fires. In 2017, the Oklahoma National Guard activated around 1,500 Soldiers and Airmen on Labor Day weekend in a multi-agency response for recovery operations in Texas immediately following Hurricane Harvey.
“When something like this happens they're able to respond in an efficient and professional manner,” Thompson said. “[Hurricane Harvey] was our first trial run with that (multi-agency cooperation), and they did a great job with it. They've been doing a great job since then, so I'm very proud of the product they produced.”
Though historically proven through these types of multi-agency responses, including domestic terrorism with the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 and several tornadoes, the Oklahoma National Guard has never been activated for an active pandemic — which brought unique and nuanced challenges.
“A tornado affects a limited geography, and the event is over by the time you respond,” expanded Mancino. “This was an ongoing, and still is an ongoing incident, and the geography is the entire State — really the entire world. Having those two factors be different is really critical and provides for a completely different operational and convened environment.”
Part of the very real downsides of the pandemic that Mancino mentioned was the obvious medical and economic effects on Oklahomans. Several missions, such as support for the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), statewide COVID-19 testing, and decontamination of long-term health care facilities, were responses to the medical effects, whereas missions such as supplementing the volunteers at food banks, aimed to help combat the economic effects.
Equipping the “real heroes” at Strategic National Stockpile
In conjunction with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and by order of Gov. Stitt, about 30 Oklahoma Guardsmen — most from the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (45th IBCT) — were assigned to the SNS, April 10, and began missions there, April 13.
“By putting the Guardsmen to work in there and taking the place of great people that generally would volunteer but not in a pandemic, we were able to put both manpower and expertise against those problems and really come up with a winnable solution,” Mancino said. “Once that material came in, we were able to inventory it and improve the systems at the Strategic National Stockpile, so that we always knew what we had on hand with a high degree of certainty, and we can plan for utilization and throughput and all the kinds of things that you need to be able to manage that process successfully.”
The Guardsmen — in partnership with state agencies like the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections — helped fulfill, secure and transport orders for medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) from facilities within the 11 identified COVID-19 regional health administration locations.
“One of the things I’ve told my Guardsmen is, ‘When you’re at home, flatten the curve,’” Mancino said. “You see a dotted line [on the graph] and that dotted line represents the health care personnel here in Oklahoma, and I’ve told them our number one job is to support that line. We are going to do everything we can to help the real heroes: our healthcare workers.”
During the SNS mission, which ended July 24, Guardsmen helped to receive and inventory 17,431,800 pairs of gloves, 14,262,990 procedural masks, 2,346,920 gowns, and 427,324 N95 respirator masks, among other requested PPE items. They also helped to pack and ship 8,040,191 pairs of gloves, 4,928,026 procedural masks, 929,637 gowns, and 437,324 N95 respirator masks — again among other PPE — to facilities within the 11 identified COVID-19 regional health administration locations.
Due to their success, more than 10 Guardsmen, who didn’t have a full-time job because of the pandemic or prior to the pandemic, were hired on full-time as part of the SNS’s regular staff.
“This is a perfect example of what the Oklahoma National Guard does when our community needs us,” Thompson said. “We come here for these kinds of missions. For us at the Strategic National Stockpile, there's really not a more important need than that right now. So having members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard here to help the State at this time is very important. We're glad we're a part of this team.”
Guard as “part of the team” for statewide COVID-19 testing
In addition to supporting healthcare workers and the State with supplies, Guard members also helped with the testing process alongside the Oklahoma State Department of Health beginning April 13. Ranging from traffic control and test packaging, to transportation and the actual swabbing of potentially exposed Oklahomans, the Oklahoma National Guard was a part of nearly every step.
“The Guard has played a huge role in that, and I'm very proud of our young men and young women who have worked all day in their PPE, with the masks and the gowns and all this on and never had a bad attitude,” Thompson said. "Our folks get in there, and they do such a good job recognizing what needs to be done. They don't care if the conditions are [difficult and the days are long]. They just figure out a way to get the mission done.”
For both permanent and temporary testing sites, Guardsmen were stationed at entrances and along the lines of cars to help direct traffic. Once tests had been administered, Guardsmen were also responsible for labeling and packaging completed tests, and the service members — specifically those who were trained medics —even performed the swab tests at some sites.
One step further, Guardsmen throughout the State worked as couriers for completed tests and testing supplies, ensuring the timely delivery of tests to labs and ample inventory of equipment and supplies for testing.
“It's important because it just shows how civilians and the Guard can work together and work as a community, because the National Guard is in our communities and they represent us,” said Lynnda Parker, critical operations manager at the Oklahoma City County Health Department and testing site manager. “They're all awesome, and they're really willing to help with anything. They stepped right in after just a few minutes… and have just been part of the team ever since.”
Oklahoma National Guard Soldiers with 90th Troop Command (90th TC), 45th IBCT and Airmen from both Oklahoma Air National Guard Wings — the 137th Special Operations Wing (137th SOW) in Oklahoma City and the 138th Fighter Wing (138th FW) in Tulsa, Oklahoma — assisted the large numbers of testing statewide. Together with state healthcare workers, Oklahoma National Guardsmen administered 26,290 tests and drove 355,706 miles while transporting 89,250 samples between test sites and COVID-19 testing labs.
Strike teams and decontamination: positively impacting vulnerable populations
Aside from testing Oklahoma’s general population, Oklahoma Guardsmen also assisted in combating the medical effects on the State’s vulnerable population. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, this population includes: older adults; people who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, liver disease, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis and severe obesity; people with asthma; people with HIV; and people who are immunocompromised.
Six medics from 90th TC and 19 medics from the 45th IBCT were activated April 21 to join already in-place “strike teams” of nurses and epidemiologists to help with testing, distribution of PPE, instruction on proper wear of PPE to long-term care facility personnel, as well as communication of decontamination needs to higher headquarters. Each of the 11 teams assigned to the State’s 11 identified COVID-19 regional health administration locations consists of one epidemiologist, one long term care nurse, one communicable disease nurse, and two to four medics from the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard.
“What we saw early on were clusters of outbreaks in these facilities,” Mancino explained. “So we were really just doing anything we could to impact that in a positive way.”
By working closely with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the teams were able to relay the needs of long-term care facilities, some with especially acute patients such as those in veterans centers, and test residents in areas considered hotspots. Additionally, every long-term care facility in the State of Oklahoma was contacted for help with floor-to-ceiling decontamination by specially trained teams of Guardsmen.
“One of those things that we determined would be helpful was to provide decontamination and cleaning services at no cost to those facilities,” continued Mancino. “We were very successful in doing that. We offered it to all facilities in the State. Not all facilities took us up on it, because not all of them needed it. But we were able to knock out a significant number of those, and I think it made a positive impact in those facilities with those folks.”
As demand for decontamination increased, more Guardsmen were added to the teams, which were led by the 63rd Civil Support Team and included Airmen from both Oklahoma Air National Guard Wings. Before joining the teams, each service member and their protective equipment (such as individually assigned N95 respirators) were fit tested by the 137th SOW’s Bioenvironmental Engineering Office.
Overall, forty-eight Army and Air National Guard members were tested before joining the decontamination teams. In total, the teams decontaminated 232 long-term care facilities, some sites several floors tall and as large as 275,000 square feet, before the end of their mission June 17.
Combating economic effects at Oklahoma food banks
Though a large part of the Oklahoma National Guard’s response focused on alleviating the medically impacted populations of the State, the Guard also performed missions specifically for those who had been economically effected.
“We rapidly saw the highest level of unemployment we've seen, I think, historically because people immediately stopped going to work,” Mancino recalled.
By April 24, between the effects of the pandemic and falling oil prices, the Regional Food Bank in Oklahoma City alone — which serves 53 of the 77 counties in the State of Oklahoma — saw an increase of as much as 60 percent in the need for food assistance, according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma’s Director of Communications and Marketing, Kathy Nestlen.
Beginning April 21, not long after the onset of the other missions, Airmen from the 137th SOW and 138th FW supplemented the usual scores of volunteers at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because of the pandemic, the food banks were unable to accept outside volunteers, leaving only the essential food bank employees to make up for the difference.
“A lot of people at that median income level in Oklahoma stopped working and therefore the amount of people that needed food assistance increased,” Mancino explained. “So you put that issue of a higher demand for food and services from the food banks and couple that with a lack of an ability for volunteers to come in and volunteer, and you have a real challenge.”
The two teams of about 25 Oklahoma Air National Guardsmen (one team at each food bank and 50 Guardsmen in total) put together boxes, filled them with non-perishable food and bread, sealed and stacked the boxes on pallets, and then encased the boxes with plastic wrap for transport. Other Guardsmen helped to gather drinks, juices and produce for distribution, as well as transported those boxes to local communities where other Guardsmen were working at mobile pantry sites.
“We are so happy to welcome the Oklahoma Air National Guard to our facility, and we're so thankful to Gov. Stitt for activating [them] and making that happen,” Nestlen said on April 24. “This group is like a well-oiled machine, and just having 25 of them here has made such a difference in just these first few days. They are literally setting records for the number of emergency food boxes packed and the number of pallets that we're able to fill.”
Before the end of their mission May 22, the Oklahoma Air National Guardsmen working at the food bank in Oklahoma City boxed 1,120,865 pounds of food and packed 54,220 boxes for transport to Oklahomans who needed them. In Tulsa, the Guardsmen packed 8,750 food containers and delivered 3,318. They also picked up 55,449 prepared meals and delivered 54,864, while sorting 12,000 pounds of food and delivering 174,150 pounds total.
“We stockpiled months worth of food supplies,” Thompson said. “It's a very complex operation at both of our food banks, we gave the Oklahoma food banks the opportunity to catch their breath, give them a steady stream of productive workers and plan for how they're going to move onto the next step, if we continue under these conditions."
Oklahoma Guardsmen: “Always willing, standing and ready”
Guard operations continued to adapt to the changing landscape of COVID-19 in Oklahoma. April 24 marked the first day of Phase 1 of the Open Up and Recover Safely, or OURS, plan, which began to open the State back up in consideration of the economic effects on Oklahoma businesses and employees. The State proceeded to Phase Two of the plan May 15 and the third and final phase June 1.
According to a release from the Oklahoma Governor’s office, 188,665 COVID-19 tests had been performed with 3.77% coming back positive by May 28. Since Phase Two of the OURS plan was initiated, 69,914 tests had been performed and just 2.1% had returned positive by May 29.
As of May 6, Gov. Stitt had activated 360 Oklahoma Army and Air National Guardsmen in total, explaining the need to be judicious when activating any number of Citizen Soldiers and Airmen.
“[Most Oklahoma Guardsmen] work for private companies and small businesses,” Stitt said. “Just like you or I, they're our neighbors. They work in the community. So we want to be cautious with how many days [we activate them for], but they are always willing and ready to serve their state.”
Continuing the mission with COVID-19 mapping
A substantial portion of those were activated or converted from other missions on April 27 to help with voluntary COVID-19 mapping.
The mapping, which begins with a positive COVID-19 test, follows the same procedures for any other disease or contagion tracing process. An employee from the Department of Health makes the initial call, informing the individual of a positive test result, but only after confirming their identity. They then work with the call recipient to voluntarily build a list of contacts who could have had exposure to the infected individual. That list gets passed to a trained person who then follows up with each of the contacts.
Many of those trained people are Guardsmen, who are working in a sort of call center to make the calls to each of the contacts while also protecting any identifying or medical information.
“In this case, we just had very competent young men and women,” Mancino said. “A lot of them were college students, et cetera, who could come in and quickly be trained. It's not that they had that past experience, but they were just generally competent to come in and be diligent and learn and work hard. They've had great success at contact tracing. I feel very fortunate for the work that they've done and the effort they've given.”
Despite the “tracing” aspect of the interactions, the initial reach-out begins regular contact with potentially exposed people for the duration of their contagious period and includes education of symptoms and prevention, resources such as food and supplies for those who need to quarantine, and symptom monitoring for those who contract COVID-19 or have the potential to.
“The Guard has probably doubled my staff here in Guymon,” said Terri Salisbury, Oklahoma State Department of Health regional director, during an interview May 28. “I really appreciate the National Guard coming out and being so willing [to help]. Most people don't come to Guymon, and they've all been great. They've stayed and worked through the weekends and everything else. So I'm very, very thankful for them.”
In the height of the mapping mission, there were 90 Air and Army Guardsmen from 90th TC, 45th IBCT, 45th Field Artillery Brigade (45th FAB), and both Oklahoma Air National Guard Wings, completing calls from more than 22 locations throughout the State, which totaled to 31,081 calls as of the end of July.
Thompson expressed how large of a number that is when compared to today’s culture of caller ID.
“They get a fair number of hang-ups,” he described. “But they’re persistent. They just keep calling, keep calling, keep calling… because at the end of the day, it’s very important that we're able to have the ability to trace people who are exposed to COVID-19 and to alert them so they can take efforts to mitigate spreading this virus to more and more people. The mission absolutely makes sense, and we'll probably be doing that for an extended period of time. But, I think it will remain to be, continue to be, very challenging.”
Passing the torch for a new normal
Though the mapping mission is still ongoing, many of the Guard’s missions have tapered to a halt. In an effort to both remain fiscally responsible and to pass the full-time or more steady-state operations back to civilian agencies in the State, the Oklahoma National Guard has released many of their Guardsmen back into their civilian jobs and lives.
“The whole plan has always been to work the National Guard out of a job,” Mancino said. “We do not want to be this central mechanism and belly button unless we're needed. Because when I brought on my staff, I can bring on 30, 50, or more senior experienced staff officers. That's millions of dollars in federal money that we're able to apply to this problem in the State. The State just cannot afford to maintain those levels of people for this contingency.”
The Guardsmen return to business as usual only after undergoing COVID-19 testing and two weeks of mandatory restriction of movement, which helps to ensure they are not returning to their homes and communities with exposure to COVID-19.
“Once you have Soldiers and Airmen involved in your process, you don't want them to leave because they’re doing a good job,” Mancino said. “But it behooves us and the Guard that we get those agencies to the point where they're self sufficient and sustained. That being said, there's obviously a reluctance to completely break off that relationship — that’s completely understandable … When we do have to break contact, we really try to do it in a manner that makes sense and leaves that agency in a sound position. We're not leaving any of these critical missions until they're ready for us to go.”
That said, the Oklahoma National Guard recognizes the continuing rise in cases and the growing uncertainty within the State.
“We're not yet sure what COVID-19 is going to mean for us going forward,” Mancino admitted. “As far as this response goes, I recognize the tendency and I’ve done it myself to say, ‘Okay well, we're kind of closing off the first chapter or phase one,’ but we know this could be a book.”
Even compared to past successful domestic operations, COVID-19 has presented the State and nation with new challenges.
‘I don't know if I could adequately compare this to anything,” Thompson said. “You hear all these terms and we've heard them ad nauseam… ‘unprecedented’, ‘never-before’, but this truly is something as a country, that we've never dealt with before … With floods, we know eventually the water is going to go down. With fires, eventually the fire is going to go out. With our response to blizzards or ice storms, eventually it's going to warm up and that ice is going to melt. But with COVID-19, we have no idea how this is going to end. So that's our challenge now for the Air and Army Guard, is we need to be prepared for a sustained response to this, because even today, as we sit here several months into this, we really don't have a very good feeling or a clue or understanding of when, or if, this is going to end.”
Oklahoma moving forward: “We’re still in this.”
Oklahoma Air and Army National Guardsmen, whose motto is “Always Ready, Always There,” are ready to rejoin the fray should they be needed and if requested by the Governor in the future.
“We're not some nameless, faceless person that's coming through, ticking the box, and we're moving on because of career requirements,” Thompson said. “We're going to be here. We're going to be in church with you. We're going to be at tee ball games. We're going to see you at Walmart. We're going to be all these places you are. When the time comes and we're called up, we're going to put this uniform on and go serve our communities across the State of Oklahoma. And that's different than what our active duty component brothers and sisters may do … their roots aren't as deep as the Guard. And that's always been the beauty of the Guard.”
As part of the community, the Guard has also worked alongside state agencies to setup the future response to COVID-19.
“We're still in this pandemic,” Mancino explained. “We're prepared to continue to fight in this pandemic, but I really think that we have worked out a model with the other state agencies and a level of trust where they feel comfortable in a large scale event that overwhelms the command and control capacity of those organizations to bring the Guard in as a central clearing house again for the Governor and his executive staff.”
He also commends Guardsmen and healthcare works alike for their willingness to serve their state in its times of need.
“One of the things that stays with me now is just the courage of our Soldiers and Airmen,” Mancino said. “Very early on in this pandemic, no one was really sure what this disease was, the mortality rate, et cetera. We had young men and women, medics that would go out and put themselves at risk on the frontlines. Their courage in the face of the unknown... It was just amazing. And I'd extend that not just to our medics, but to all the men and women in health care. Soldiers often get a lot of affirmation for their courage, but we don't look at doctors and nurses and other health care professionals in the same light. I think this pandemic has just really shown us that across this broad spectrum, Oklahomans really came out, stood up for each other and did the right thing.”
Thompson is especially proud of how the State has come together — past, present and future — and of the Guardsmen who wear the uniform.
“We've been an all volunteer force … so no one is being ordered to go anywhere,” Thompson elaborated. “Everyone's volunteering to put this uniform on and go and do good things for our community. The people who are wearing this uniform, they represent everyone that's ever worn this uniform, or version of. They represent everyone that wears this uniform right now, and they will represent everyone that ever will wear this uniform. To do that on a volunteer basis, to step up and accept that responsibility… it’s really simple for me: thank you.”
As for the Governor and his staff, he sees the response so far, despite its challenges, as an overall success.
“The Guard was exemplary in every task that we asked them to do, and I just can't thank them enough. They went above and beyond and helped Oklahomans in a time of crisis to fight this COVID-19 pandemic and flatten the curve."