Vermont National Guard helps out with COVID testing

As more testing is needed, the Vermont National Guard is able to up the state’s testing capacity anywhere from a few to a few hundred.
Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 8:34 AM EST
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WINOOSKI, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont National Guard has been called on for many tasks this year, from cybersecurity threats to food distribution, but one task is putting them on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As more testing is needed, the Guard is helping to expand the state’s testing capacity anywhere from a few to a few hundred. They consider themselves flexible and ready to respond wherever they are needed.

“Whether it’s down south or Central Vermont or northern Vermont. Wherever it is, we will be there or be ready,” said Vermont National Guard Maj. Joseph Phelan, the commander of the Guard’s COVID Task Force.

The Guard has been deployed since March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the roles that started in May has taken them all over the state testing.

“Primarily the biggest risks that are associated with the COVID testing is the exposure,” Phelan said.

He says the extensive training includes proper use of the swab to get a sample, as well as putting on and taking off PPE. They say limiting cross-contamination between patients and soldiers is crucial.

“To compare this to my mobilization back in 2010 to Afghanistan, we are about just as busy as we were back in 2010,” said Phelan.

He says the difference is that he is going home every night and he worries about the risks of exposure to his family. It’s for that reason some soldiers have chosen to stay in the barracks, an arrangement some have been opting for since May.

“It’s an indicator of their dedication to this mission and to their community,” said Phelan.

And the soldiers on site echo Phelan’s message.

“I really wasn’t concerned. We had the training, we know what we are doing,” said Airman First Class Mariann Powell.

She works on the swabbing team in the pop-up site and says she has full confidence in the equipment, training, and her teammates so everyone stays healthy. She says that enables her ability to focus on providing a good experience for those coming to get tested and seeing the mission through until the end.

“To be a part of something greater than myself, this is why, why I joined the Guard,” said Powell.

And the way they are testing is changing. The Vermont Department of Health says testing sites need to get through their supply of older style swabs first, but there’s a new, shorter swab that’s been in use for about a month. The anterior nasal swabs are designed to be less invasive, only going up the nose a short way. They move it around the inside of the nostril for a few seconds before placing it in the vile and storing it to be shipped to the lab.

Testing officials say everyone operates their sites differently.

The new swabs are designed to be less invasive, only going up the nose a short ways.

“How we run sites, versus how the Department of Health runs sites, versus Kinney Drugs, Walgreens, Walmart, every site is different. The supplies come, what we get from the Department of Health. But over time, the swabs have changed, the processes have changed. We have moved online, so patients can get their results online in a much faster fashion,” said Phelan.

The Department of Health says they hope the new less invasive tests allow people to feel better about getting tested, a critical part of protecting themselves and preventing the spread of the virus.

Click here to find out where you can get tested and to schedule an appointment.

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