VNG strike teams boost Virginia’s COVID-19 testing capacity

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airman practice taking COVID-19 test samples during point prevalence sample training May 4, 2020, at the S. Gardner Waller Depot in Richmond, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airman are helping increase Virginia’s COVID-19 testing capacity at long-term care facilities with point prevalence sampling teams. The PPS teams began testing missions April 29, 2020, and have collected more than 2,700 patient samples for testing. 

Led by the Richmond-based 34th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package, PPS “strike teams” are being deployed to long-term care facilities identified by the state as needing testing support. 

Each strike team is comprised of four PPS teams, each with three personnel, who receive rigorous medical training on proper sample taking, sample handling and sanitation. Those teams train to go through a residential long-term care facility room by room to conduct a large number of tests quickly and safely. 

Those PPS teams are supported by a command and control element and a decontamination element, a part of the process every bit as important as the actual sample taking. 

The Richmond-based 34th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package conducts the training, which prepares PPS strike teams to take samples from patients at long term care facilities as part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s response to COVID-19. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

“On that back end of the strike team we have Soldiers and Airmen providing decontamination, to make sure we’re not bringing COVID out of the facility and potentially contaminating ourselves or the next facility,” explained Maj. Andrew J. Czaplicki, the 34th CERFP’s deputy commander. 

All components of the strike teams undergo training conducted by the 34th CERFP, making sure every member of each team is fully knowledgable and ready to conduct the sensitive work. During training, teams practice moving through a facility, taking samples and performing proper sanitization and decontamination. 

“They receive a very rigorous swab sample training provided by the Virginia Department of Health. We are then able to practice on each other using some expired test kits from other events,” said Czaplicki. 

Collected samples receive proper storage and labeling before being transported to labs for testing. 

The capability provided by the CERFP and the PPS strike teams has significantly boosted critical COVID-19 testing across Virginia, especially at vulnerable long-term care facilities. Since VNG testing missions began, they’ve collected more than 2,700 samples from more than a dozen facilities across the state. 

“There’s a definite need for us,” said the deputy commander. “There’s a capacity level we’re trying to get to throughout the state, and there are some localities that need help. We’re here to offer that help, and be the good neighbor.”

“The Guard provides the manpower and the logistical expertise. Recently the Guard has helped with 12 testing events in communities like right here in Richmond and over on the Eastern Shore,” said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam during a recent news conference. “The National Guard regularly provides assistance in emergencies, and this is the greatest emergency that we have seen in many years. I’m grateful for the service of our National Guard members. They are our neighbors and they are also our friends.”

Read more about the VNG’s statewide response at https://go.usa.gov/xvQgp. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

In addition to the rigorous medical and decontamination training, Soldiers and Airmen of the strike teams are also tuned in to the sensitivity of their mission, and how for those having samples taken, how unnerving the process can be. 

“It can be kind of scary because there’s a lot of unknowns,” said Czaplicki. “They’re taking a long, sharp testing device, a swab, and they’re going up the nostril and pretty much tickling the back of your sinus. When you do that, it’s makes you want to sneeze or cringe up because there’s a foreign object in your nose. But, it’s a very quick process, it’s very simple, it’s non-invasive. It’s not as scary as it looks or sounds.”

The mission’s criticality and importance guides the strike teams and reminds them of why they volunteered to serve in the Guard. 

“All of our Soldiers and Airmen, them being Virginians themselves, these are their grandparents, these are their neighbor’s grandparents, so we want to treat them with the utmost respect possible and really just have some patience,” said Czaplicki. 

“Every point prevalence sampling we do can save lives,” he added. “It provides hospital administrators and facility administrators with needed data to identify those who need additional medical support and those who need to be further isolated and quarantined so we can continue to get through this together.”

During domestic operations, the VNG receives mission taskings from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and can’t respond to direct requests for assistance. Localities looking for VNG support should contact VDEM and make a request. Read more about the VNG’s statewide response at https://go.usa.gov/xvQgp