GEORGETOWN, Del. – Members of the Delaware National Guard are fighting the spread of coronavirus this month, joining hundreds of front-line workers at community-based testing sites throughout Sussex County, the state’s southernmost region, and a recently declared hot spot for COVID-19.
Efforts to test Sussex residents for the deadly coronavirus have increased, following a steady upsurge in additional cases and virus-related deaths there.
In late April, the State of Delaware and its community partners tested more than 750 people in Sussex County during the first major increase in community testing, state officials reported. Out of the 750, more than 35% tested positive for COVID-19.
“On April 1, we had 319 confirmed cases across Delaware,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Berry, a two-star Army officer and adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard. “By May 1, we had over 4,900 confirmed cases. This is a telltale sign that we’re in the middle of a major battle against an enemy that we can’t see without a laboratory microscope.”
Following last month’s testing initiative, the National Guard in Delaware started working in Sussex with local health systems – Bayhealth, Beebe, La Red, Nanticoke, Nemours, Peninsula, Westside, and the Veterans Health Administration – at testing sites in Milford, Seaford, and Georgetown, which are all areas hit hard by the virus.
The community-based testing locations, utilizing both rapid blood tests and nasal swabs, have been geared towards essential employees, at-risk populations, and those with symptoms associated with the deadly respiratory virus.
“We’re trying to do the testing down here to get a better idea – a better sense – of what’s going on,” said James Hanes, an environmental health specialist with Delaware Division of Public Health, “so folks can make a better-educated judgment moving forward of how they’re going to safely reopen when it comes time.”
The rapid test for individuals with no symptoms of coronavirus takes about 15 minutes to process. It establishes whether a tested person had been exposed previously and has had time to develop antibodies, Hanes explained.
For individuals with symptoms of COVID-19, the nasal swab is an acceptable upper respiratory specimen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This method is currently taking 5 to 10 days for returned results.
“Everyone who gets tested receives a pamphlet and care kit,” said 1st Lt. James Willey, an Army officer with the Delaware National Guard. “The pamphlet is an explanation of both types of tests, covers preventative care, and what to do if you test positive.”
The coronavirus care kits, assembled by teams of Guard members working at the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, or DEMA, include spray bottles with disinfectant solution, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and bandannas or similar face coverings.
“On Monday in Milford, we handed out about 450 care kits,” said Sgt. Josh Bell, a soldier with Joint Task Force Delaware, which is the response force of the National Guard in Delaware for COVID-19.
“Milford was a little bit different,” said Sgt. Zell Flamer, a soldier with JTF Delaware, “because, in Milford, we were dressed fully in PPE, and we were handing out the care packages to individuals – because of course, it wasn’t a vehicle setting, it was all walk-ons.”
“Wednesday at Seaford, we did about 240-ish, and that’s handing out one package per car,” said Sgt. Bell, referring to the drive-thru testing at the parking lot of the shuttered Frederick Douglass Elementary School.
“Right now, [stores] don’t have a lot of the products we have here in the care kits,” Pfc. Cole Smith, another soldier on the joint task force, said. “We’re able to give out the hand sanitizer from Dogfish Head and cleaning supplies needed to stay safe and prevent the spread of the disease.”
The three soldiers, who are regular members of the Delaware National Guard’s 262nd Component Repair Company, said they interact the most with Delawareans at the walk-on testing site in Milford, located at the state service center of the Department of Health and Social Services.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people – how it’s affecting their home lives, how it’s affecting their work lives,” Sgt. Bell said. “We had a guy come through; his wife tested positive, but he was negative and trying to figure out what they were going to do because they’ve got five kids, and his employer wants him to go to work.”
From duties behind the scenes to missions on the front lines, the service members said they feel that these efforts are making headway in the fight to combat the pandemic.
“To go from making the care kits at DEMA and doing the food bank mission to coming out here and handing out the care kits to people,” said Sgt. Bell, “it just really started to feel like [we’re] making a difference.”
“Even though we’re working with communities and programs that we don’t have any affiliation with, it’s good that we’re all working together to accomplish one mission,” Flamer said. “We couldn’t do our job if it weren’t for the medical team. The medical team couldn’t do their job if it weren’t for the state police. The state police couldn’t do their job if it weren’t for DELDOT.”
“A lot of people don’t exactly know what the National Guard does, so this is a good time for them to see that this is what we’re here for,” Bell added. “We come out to help the community and show that we can do anything that needs to happen to get Delaware back where it needs to be.”
When Delaware National Guard units are not mobilized or under federal control, they report to the governor of Delaware. Under state law, the National Guard protects life and property and preserves peace, order, and public safety.
These missions are accomplished by emergency relief support during natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and forest fires; search and rescue operations; support to civil defense; counterdrug operations; and maintenance of vital public services.
“Little kids that come through with their parents to get tested see us out here, and it can definitely inspire them for what they can do moving forward in life,” Bell said. “To see all of the different organizations working together hand in hand, it goes to show you that, no matter what, anything is possible.”