SALEM, Ore. – On February 28, with the announcement of the first presumptive case of the novel coronavirus by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), Oregon joined an increasingly longer list of states responding to the sweeping global pandemic. The flu-like symptoms, which often include; a fever, coughing, breathing difficulties, and fatigue, were first reported in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, China on Dec. 1, 2019.
On March 8, seven new cases were reported in Oregon, bringing the total of believed cases up to 14 as Governor Kate Brown declared a State of Emergency, freeing up additional state resources. Within two days, she declared a series of “urgent new rules” to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. Oregonians quickly adapted new preventive procedures to everyday life, such as social distancing, keen attention to “20-second hand washing,” and teleworking from home: all became commonplace as ‘the new normal’ to everyday life, all-the-while the Oregon National Guard was transitioning to provide a vital role in responding to the coronavirus outbreak.
Guardsmen quickly integrated within the Joint Information Center (JIC) in Portland and the Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) in Salem, helping establish accurate information and timely reactions to the media and public, to include recommendations, resources and ongoing medical findings. As the Public Information Officer for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Cory Grogan became the manager for the JIC in Portland.
“Everyone here is stepping up and working extra hard to share information and keep Oregonians as safe and healthy as possible,” he said, describing the initial long hours and consecutive days of work when speaking with Sarah Wexler, the Director of Strategic Communications for Governor Brown. “The team is competent, level headed, hard-working, and selfless to put their other jobs and their personal lives to the side to support this effort.”
With an assembly of state and federal agencies all working together as a team, the Incident Command Structure employed by the JIC and ECC, mirrored the same model as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This structure allowed the Oregon National Guard and Oregon Military Department to instantly fall into other areas of support as the coronavirus began to grow exponentially by mid-March.
As the confirmed cases grew to more than 50, planning and preparations to increase hospital beds and testing sites quickly became apparent to the OHA. With the outbreak of over a dozen cases at the Oregon Veterans’ Home in Lebanon, a team of Oregon National Guard CERFP (CBRNE – Enhanced Response Force Package) members set up large tents to be used as a temporary testing facility for COVID-19 on March 17. The testing was to screen more than 200 staff and caregivers at the facility.
Kelly Fitzpatrick, director of the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said, “At the Lebanon Veterans’ Home, our highest priority remains the health and safety of our honored residents and hard-working staff. We are grateful to our partners at the Oregon National Guard and Oregon Health Authority for their ongoing support in helping us continue to follow established infectious disease prevention protocols and public health guidelines.”
The following day in Seaside, members of the Oregon Military Department, working together with the state maintenance staff from Camp Rilea and Providence Seaside Hospital maintenance crews, set up military tents at the Providence Seaside Hospital.
The site was prepared for testing and triaging members of the local community based on potential “flattening the curve” models engaged early around the state.
By the next day on March 19th, Oregon National Guardsmen were now at the Oregon State Fairgrounds assisting OHA to establish the Oregon Medical Station. This mobile facility had the capacity to provide an alternate site for 250 patients currently in nursing home care. Officials announce 13 new cases, bringing the state’s total to 88.
As the impact of the virus evolved in all areas of the state, Oregon Guard Soldiers and Airmen transitioned into a variety of support roles to combat the growth of cases.
“Currently about 200 members of the Oregon National Guard have been mobilized to directly assist in a variety of areas including logistical, communications, and other operational support for the COVID-19 response,” said Stephen Bomar, Director of Public Affairs for the Oregon Military Department. “We are all part of one team working together to ensure the safety of our communities throughout Oregon.”
Guardsmen continued to work in conjunction with other state partners, working with the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to deliver 150 military cots along with blankets and hygiene packs to La Grande, Oregon, on March 26. The supplies were requested by Union County Emergency Management to support the ongoing medical response in Oregon.
As the data of evidence that Oregon was beginning to ‘flatten the curve’ through aggressive social distancing, Governor Brown directed many of the much-needed ventilators to New York state which had become the global epicenter of COVID-19 cases.
“We’ll be sending 140 ventilators to help New York because Oregon is in a better position right now. We must do all that we can to help those on the front lines of this response,” she tweeted on April 4th.
Coast-to-coast, the National Guard remained flexible to these same day-by-day encounters, reacting competently to the changing demands, while delivering the combined dexterity of military and civilian know-how.
“Every state is battling COVID-19, and we need to be aware of the immense impact we have on our communities,” said Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Chief, National Guard Bureau.
“Our combined combat and civilian-acquired skills help to create a blueprint for an ideal military force capable of addressing the myriad challenges presented by COVID-19,” said Lengyel, describing the adaptability to the task and missions. “If you need us to drive trucks, fly airplanes, be mechanics or plan a large response effort, the National Guard is able to adapt to whatever the mission demands.”
A clear example of the dual nature of the National Guard’s Citizen-Warrior role during this current operational period was the distribution warehouse established at Wilsonville, where Soldiers and Department of Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) staff began working in conjunction with FEMA, DAS and other state agencies.
The warehouse was quickly established with members having similar skills sets to fill the unique domestic operational needs and to build-in long term logistical services.
“It helps having specific experience in warehouse management; in-depth knowledge in using Excel spreadsheets, inventory and management associated with one’s Military Operational Specialty but more allied with their civilian skills,” said Army National Guard Lt. Col. Philip DeMontigny, Task Force Assurance Commander.
He compared much of this ‘Can Do’ approach to what he witnessed with service members finding and filling key roles during his deployment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005.
“We had carpenters that built showers in 24 hours, we had bus drivers moving soldiers that drove city buses, we had certain skill sets that you might find with active duty (members) but more than likely, you’re going to find them in the guard.”
The warehouse operations are providing the ‘Big 5 main items’ of PPE: face mask, gloves, gowns, face shields, and N95 mask, said DeMontigny.
“Our main effort right now is that we are properly receiving and shipping PPE and other ancillary items from here (in Wilsonville),” he explained. “We have a formula that has been developed by the OHA that drives the spread sheet, allocating all the items and tracks accountability.”
The first shipment took place on April 13, as deliveries and distribution to seven main hubs moved these items around the 36 counties, nine Tribal Nationals and two Tribal Health agencies around the entire state.
“It’s somewhere between Operation Smokey with fighting wildland fires, and the potential support of a natural disaster like the Cascadia Subduction Zone,” DeMontigny remarked about the approach to countering the COVID-19 response.
One of the distribution centers is near the Portland International Airport at Kliever National Guard Armory and is the County Assistance Team (CAT) Portland, one of seven regional hubs in the state, and part of Task Force Assurance. The team consists of 13 members and is flexible to meet a variety of the state’s rising needs.
“A typical distribution day consists of 7-15 pallets,” said 2nd Lt. Craig Mehrmann, a platoon leader assigned to the 141st Brigade Support Battalion and the Officer in Charge of the Portland hub, allocating deliveries to seven Portland metro counties. “We’re delivering to several high-density areas and set up to make daily deliveries, but it is able to react to the fluxes every day.”
“It was unexpected, and we weren’t sure how it would affect us in the United States and in Oregon in particular as it built up across the world,” he said, describing the unseen challenges that the COVID-19 outbreak can encompass.
With a background in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, Mehrmann is one of these uniquely poised Guardsmen, trained and educated to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic. He joined the National Guard four years ago and is working toward a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine.
“Ironically, this is very good timing for me to be part of this response, as I’ve studied health policy and systems, humanitarian assistance, population dynamics, and crisis response.”
As the mission is constantly evolving, the flow of PPE from FEMA is based on usage and the accounting of the materials. Tracking and accountability are key factors in maintaining the critical supply for any second or third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks.
To avoid using PPE from the national emergency stockpile, Airmen from both the 142nd Wing and 173rd Fighter Wing, along with Soldiers with the Allied Trade Section have been busy making PPE for fellow service members for the foreseeable future needs.
“While our federal mission is to go and fight our nation’s wars, a lot of our Guardsmen are enjoying helping their own state during disasters,” said State Command Senior Enlisted Leader for Oregon, Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Foesch.
Flexibility and being able to transition to other areas of support is essential as the COVID-19 continues to alter the workflow for members of the Oregon National Guard.
As the state mission and other assignments are changing in this new era of living in the time of the coronavirus, Foesch stressed that Soldiers and Airmen need to take care of themselves, their families, and continue to adhere to all the new health guidelines.
“We cannot afford to lose focus or our attention when it comes to well-being and safety issues,” he said. “This means maintaining our physical fitness to be both ready for future missions but to reduce stress and manage all of these new and unforeseen challenges.”