Ohio National Guard on front lines during COVID-19 pandemic: Soldiers, Airmen provide medical assistance at federal prison

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker
  • 180th Fighter Wing

From blizzards to hurricanes, from east coast to west coast, and anything in between, members of the National Guard answer the call each time our nation is in need.

Today, as COVID-19 continues to grip America, more than 45,000 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are deployed to every state, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, supporting their communities — caring for citizens in need, and helping to slow the spread of this deadly virus.

In Ohio, more than 700 Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen have stepped up to the front lines of this fight to protect Ohioans by providing manpower, unique skill sets, specialized military training and knowledge to the communities hit hardest by COVID-19. The Ohio National Guard has provided teams of Soldiers and Airmen to feed Ohioans at regional and local food banks, collect and distribute critical personal protective equipment, analyze the threat and spread of the virus, and assess facilities for potential use as alternate medical sites and even support prisons, helping where it is needed.

At the request of Gov. Mike DeWine, beginning April 6, more than 40 Ohio National Guard medical professionals spent 20 days supporting the Federal Correctional Institution Elkton, in Columbiana County, with medical services and equipment. While the facility is the only federal correctional institute in the state, the need was immediate and the Ohio National Guard answered the governor’s call, responding rapidly to provide help, filling critical staffing gaps until additional federal resources could arrive.

Lt. Col. Kyle Erford, a nurse assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing’s Medical Group and COVID-19 incident commander at a local-area hospital, knew it wasn’t a question of if Ohio National Guard medical technicians would be activated, but when.

“I had discussed the possibility of being activated with my family,” Erford said. “I received a call just before 9 a.m. and three hours later I reported for duty, ready to support Operation Steady Resolve.”

FCI Elkton, which was already operating with half of the required medical staff members before the National Guard support arrived, was one of Ohio’s first correctional institutions to feel the harsh impact caused by the spread of the coronavirus. The role of the Ohio National Guard medical support team was to supplement the facility’s in-house medical team by providing mission essential tasks, including patient triage and in-house patient care to reduce the number of inmates being transferred to local hospitals and mitigate the spread.

“We were there to help reduce the spread by testing and isolating patients as necessary,” said Maj. Cameron Evans, clinical standards officer for the Ohio National Guard. “We helped to alleviate stress on the facility staff and the local hospitals and provided a bridge to additional intermediate care right inside of the facility.”

Additionally, the diverse skill set of the team expanded and enhanced medical care within the facility, including direct patient contact, support functions to ensure the safe, timely and expert care of patients, and care and safety of the medical staff. The team brought in physicians, physician assistants, nurses, medics and supply support members, each with unique roles to fill.

Supply support team members were dedicated to the safety of the physicians and nurses by ensuring personal protective equipment was readily available and that each suit and mask fit properly before each shift, to prevent infection of the highly contagious virus.

The nursing staff provided supportive care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, including medication distribution, monitoring of patient vitals and providing basic treatments such as oxygen therapy, when needed.

Physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners evaluated the health status of patients, developed treatment plans and ordered tests necessary to bring patients back to good health, before they were cleared to reintegrate back into the population.

“The National Guard is uniquely qualified for medical care in a variety of settings,” Erford said. “We train for both war and peacetime missions, and while providing care in an environment like this isn’t something we traditionally prepare for, our skills and knowledge are relevant to this setting. I had previous civilian experience working as a nurse for the Lima Correctional Institution, and that experience also prepared me for this mission.”

Maj. Natalie Diltz, a physician assistant assigned to the 178th Wing and an emergency medicine physician assistant at a local-area hospital, knew the team’s medical knowledge and experience would be beneficial to the mission and the prison’s medical staff.

“Our involvement was critical to help plateau the transmission of COVID-19 throughout the facility,” Diltz said. “But, we were also able to aid in decreasing the number of inmate admissions at surrounding hospitals, by providing in-house patient care.”

The additional medical support within the facility allowed for more patients, including those not infected with COVID-19 to be treated onsite, only transporting those with acute symptoms to local-area hospitals. This allowed for hospitals to preserve resources and bed space for patients with severe symptoms.

“We were a joint team, operating in a joint environment,” said Col. James Parry, deputy state surgeon for the Ohio Air National Guard. “Our Soldiers and Airmen worked alongside our civilian counterparts to mitigate the spread of this disease. We brought with us the capacity and the medical expertise to assist with daily virus screening, testing and in-house treatment.”

Throughout the mission, the Ohio National Guard medical team provided 24-hour support, spending more than 4,000 man-hours assisting the prison medical staff. The medical team released its final patient April 24, as the mission concluded.

While the mission at Elkton is over, fellow Ohio National Guard members continue to help several hard-hit prison systems across the state. Soldiers and Airmen are currently helping with medical and operational support at Pickaway Correctional Institution in Orient, Marion Correctional Institution in Marion and the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.

“From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Ohio, we’ve known our support could be requested for a variety of unique missions,” said Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr., Ohio adjutant general. “Our medical team provided excellent care for the inmates at the federal correctional institution in Columbiana County. I can’t say enough about our Guard members’ professionalism during this mission.”

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