California Guard medical unit deep in COVID-19 fight

CA State Guard’s Sgt. Ryan Reeves and a California Emergency Medical Service Authority (EMSA) staff member suit up with personal protective equipment March 27, 2020. (Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Eddie Siguenza)

BURLINGAME, Calif. — In this facility, there’s no social distancing due to COVID-19. Everything the California National Guard does is hands-on, and done carefully with protection and sympathy.

Much is relied upon these Cal Guardsmen and California State Guard troops from the California National Guard Medical Detachment. Inside this facility they’re physicians, nurse practitioners, etc. who treat positively-tested coronavirus patients. Outside, they’re even more. They’re partners and coordinators with the California Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) and other local agencies, who are deeply involved with containing COVID-19 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The National Guard came up with a map on how the flow of operation is going to be,” said Capt. John Mullee, physician. “We assisted and designed this hospital decompression unit with Cal EMSA. The goal is to essentially decompress local hospitals and ensure the San Mateo (County) hospital and health care systems are not overwhelmed.”

Mullee and a handful of medical staff rotate duties as doctors. They’re up front with COVID-19-stricken people, diagnosing their situations and determining their care. Patients are house in a temporary treatment facility that county leaders deemed sufficient in this emergency period.

To add, the Guardsmen set up a mobile pharmacy if certain medicines are needed. The medical detachment includes doctors, physicians, nurses, medics and behavioral health officers. They’re adjusting to additional roles such as communication specialists, logistics personnel, site directors and even security.

“This operation is pretty dynamic,” aded Mullee. “We’re doing total care of these patients. We’re provided them medication, were insuring they’re safe. If it needs to be done, we’re taking care of it. Our medics are phenomenal. They’ve been trained with utmost care. They’re actual national registry (emergency medical technicians).”

Before troops are sent into “the hot zone” they must obtain personal protective equipment. And prior to that, they must be respirator trained and fitted properly. Precautions are priority. No one but medical personnel are allowed into the building.

Although temporary, this facility is relatively protected. A fence was erected to secure traffic and unknown visitors. Security guards monitor every outside corner. Even the building’s name — originally a popular hotel — is obscured and covered to keep its reputation intact.

“It’s pretty well secured,” Mullee added.

“We’ve been asked to provide an alternative care site,” said Jeremy Caudillo, EMSA senior emergency services coordinator. “We have to accept patients. Hospitals are getting inundated and they’re trying to get more rooms for patients who are trying to get in. The California National Guard provided medical capabilities that we need to sustain these guests. It’s a benefit they’re here. The whole state of California, as well as the nation, is stressed medically for personnel. Having that Guard resource, to be a part of this mission, helps us fulfill a capability that we’re being asked to provide.”

Caudillo added, “Cal EMSA came here to set up this site and asked the National Guard to assist. They were very welcoming and wanted to join the fight. Having them here for this medical mission greatly improved our response time.”

Nearly two dozen National Guard and State Guard troops work day and night in the compound. It’s run 24-hours.

The San Francisco Bay Area was one of the nation’s stringiest COVID-19 defenders when the pandemic initiated. It quickly set public orders and regulations in place, practically locking down its millions of residents quickly with stay at home and/or shelter in place rules before other California counties and cities reacted.