'It's Not The Typical Battle': Mass. National Guard Takes On New Mission Of Testing For Coronavirus At Nursing Homes

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Nursing homes are one of the places where the coronavirus is spreading the fastest and proving to be most lethal.

The situation is so critical, the state Department of Public Health has enlisted the Massachusetts National Guard to go to nursing homes that are asking for help to test some residents for the virus.

Major Mark Bennett is in charge of one of those teams of testers. He commands the CBRN task force — which normally trains to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

In the past eight days, Bennett's guardsmen and women have tested nearly 2600 hundred nursing home residents at more than 140 facilities across the state. It isn't up to them who gets tested — that decision is made by the facilities' administrators in consultation with DPH.

The troops walk into the homes donning full-body Tyvek suits and other personal protective equipment. And they go straight to the nursing home residents in their rooms.

Interview Transcript

There's only one person that enters the room at any given time, and that's the individual taking the test. Everybody else is in the hallway. So we have multiple tests that are happening at the same time, but there's only one person in the room and that's to minimize the amount of contamination that is transferred. And that way, when that individual comes back out, they go through a decontamination protocol before moving on to the next room to ensure that they're not cross contaminating between patients.

Lisa Mullins: So it's kind of a relay. If you're in a room, for instance, you swab the person who's in the room, [then] hand it off to somebody in the hallway?

That's correct. We have the person who's doing the testing in the room. And then after they actually complete the test, they pass it off to what we call the clean person in the hallway. The test gets bagged up and it gets passed on to the runner, and the runner will actually run the test out. We want as few people in the room with the patient as possible, because anyone that goes into a room has to go through a decontamination protocol when they come out to ensure that there's no cross-contamination.

So the national guardsmen and women who are actually conducting this swab test, I mean, the test is very fast, but it's kind of intrusive. You have a thing being stuck way up your nose. Are these people medically trained?

They receive training prior to, and then they go down into the facility under supervision of a clinical provider. So they will have a medic that goes down with them [and] acts as the clinical supervisor to ensure that the test is being done properly. And they will have already have been trained prior to actually going down to actually do these tests.

You'd think that, for the residents, it must be scary seeing somebody come in with their protective gear and approaching them and having to be in touch with them physically. I wonder what you think that's like for them and what it's like for your team.

I can't imagine what's going through the resident's mind when we go in there, you know, in a full PPE to execute this test. They're already scared and concerned. And, you know, we're already in an environment where they have to be isolated. They can't see their family. And this is just one additional layer.

For our soldiers, it's a scary time for them. Our soldiers there, they understand the mission. They understand its importance. And they know the goal is to combat this virus and to save lives. So they're in a very highly motivated state of mind right now.

It's interesting to think. I mean, they're not on a battlefield. They're putting themselves at risk. It's more personal, I think, than it sounds like it usually is. Are they nervous? What do they tell you?

I'm sure that deep down there probably is a sense of, you know, anxiety that goes along with this mission simply because this is a virus that is invisible. It's not the typical battle that we would fight on a military battlefield. You can't see the enemy. You can't detect the enemy. Yet you're expected to fight off and combat the enemy. We know that going into these facilities, we're walking into an unknown.

So after that part of the mission is complete and your men and women leave the facility, what happens?

When they're coming out of the facility ... everybody on the team will go through a thorough decontamination, which will include the safely removing the PPE and then actually going through the decontamination process, where they will be sprayed with the chemicals that are necessary to ensure that any contaminants that were possibly left behind ... are clearly removed.

Your team has not been to the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. That was other national guardsmen. That's where a lot of veterans have been infected — many of the veterans there dying in the outbreak that some believe was grossly mishandled by management there. The attorney general's office is investigating. Does it hit you and your team members in a particular way when the people that you're dealing with, when the rooms of the people you're entering, are the rooms of veterans — some World War II veterans?

Oh, sure, it absolutely does. And ... that wouldn't be just from from necessarily the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, although that is a horrible situation. And I know everything is being done now to hopefully right that wrong that was done out there. I know that the soldiers that are out there are working so hard. But just being able to go out there and to know that part of what we're doing is serving those that served before us, along with our overall community ... We all came in the Guard for this reason. We came in the Guard to serve our communities and our states and our nation. That's what we're doing now. This is the mission.

This segment aired on April 9, 2020.


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Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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