National Guard continues augmenting state COVID response

    Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, speaks March 12 to troops mobilizing for state active duty in response to the Wisconsin Department of Health Service’s request for assistance. The troops will be transporting 37 Wisconsin citizens who were aboard a cruise ship with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to their homes for self-quarantine once they arrive in Wisconsin. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Baum

    COVID-19 is not a distant issue that somehow confines itself to urban areas, safe and away from rural and suburban Wisconsin. More than 13,000 Wisconsinites have tested positive for the virus, with 481 having died. Currently, daily testing capacity for the state sits at around 13,000, and officials are working to increase it further.

    Across the Badger State, 2,161 Wisconsinites, or about 16% of cases, have required hospitalization. In Wisconsin, 69 of the state’s 72 counties have reported positive COVID-19 cases.

    Wisconsin’s National Guard continues to play a vital role by augmenting the state’s testing capabilities for COVID-19, as well as conducting other related duties. For example, 25 teams are gathering test specimens and communicating the results to residents over the phone. Currently, 12 counties from Clark to Crawford, Oneida to Racine, have Guard members conducting free testing.

    The troops’ role in the state’s response to COVID-19 will likely continue and evolve, despite the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to end the Safer at Home order.

    “As the state begins to open,” said Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, during a May 19 press conference, “specimen collection will continue to be a vital tool to help state and local leaders make informed decisions regarding their communities, as they manage and respond to this pandemic.”

    Knapp noted that three of the 25 specimen collection teams are being divided into “squads” that will focus on long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

    “They will be optimized for mobility,” the general noted, with the target facilities being small to medium in size. “In some cases,” said Knapp, “local communities and health departments are notifying residents of their results at the local level. But our call center is designed to assist in sharing some of the burden if the local communities do not have the capacity to call everyone.”

    “The call center has placed nearly 20,000 calls,” said Knapp, “with an 87% success rate. Test results are typically communicated three to five days after the specimens have been collected.” About 39 troops are currently assisting in the National Guard’s call center mission, in addition to a dozen recently added linguists to communicate with Hmong and Spanish-speaking Wisconsinites.

    Department of Health Services (DHS) Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk, who participated in the news conference, added that State Patrol members have also assisted in the transportation of test specimens. Wardens from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have “stepped up to serve as security for isolation facilities,” Van Dijk noted.

    The state has also worked to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line health workers, and ventilators for patients who need critical care.

    “So far,” explained Van Dijk, “Wisconsin has purchased 42 ventilators. We have ordered an additional 1,500 more, and expect delivery to start this month. With only investigational medications and no vaccine, we know supportive care like ventilation can be a lifeline for patients with severe disease.”

    Van Dijk highlighted projections from March and April that suggested that if the virus were left unchecked, Wisconsin would exceed its hospital capacity.

    “Working with local health systems in Milwaukee and the Army Corps Of Engineers, and with the support of FEMA, we built an alternative-care facility on the grounds of State Fair Park in Milwaukee County,” said Van Dijk. “And another at the Milwaukee House of Corrections, which will open this week.”

    Within the confines of the correctional facility, COVID-19 has spread among both incarcerated people and staff. A National Guard team tested nearly 1,000 staff and incarcerated people, and 100 specimens from the Department of Corrections (DOC) Women’s Center in Milwaukee.

    A new facility for COVID-19 patients will soon be operational within the Milwaukee House of Corrections, serving inmates throughout the state and keeping them separate from the general population.

    “It’s important for us to create a safe working environment for the healthcare workers, the correction officers and the patients,” said Colonel Aaron Reisinger, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Chicago District, Wisconsin Health News reports. Reisinger explained that 120 COVID-19 patient care spaces have been built at the facility. The $6 million price tag, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley noted, is covered by FEMA.

    “We want to make sure that we’re good partners with our neighbors to make sure that we’re flattening the curve, particularly in our institutions,” Crowley said.

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.